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The Last Will Be First

On the Gospel of Mark 9:30-37

25th Sunday of the Year

In this week’s Gospel passage Jesus and the disciples leave the region of Caesarea Philippi and travel south through Galilee. Jesus uses this secret journey as an opportunity to instruct the disciples, but the disciples had been bewildered by Jesus’ further reference to his suffering (v. 32). When they reach Capernaum Jesus asks them what they were talking about on the road. The disciples are too ashamed to answer the question, but in spite of their silence, Jesus addresses what gave rise to their argument – their hunger for power. The disciples of a Master soon to suffer bitter humiliation and death (they are ‘on the way’ to the Jerusalem where it will take place) are all too humanly involved in petty squabbling over precedence. Instead of staying with Jesus’ difficult teachings, they had moved the conversation, from suffering, to power.

Interestingly, Jesus does not criticise the disciples’ original ambition to be first. Instead, Jesus teaches them how they must act in order to be first. Jesus takes a child in his arms and challenges the disciples to welcome this little one. In St. Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 18:4) a child is used as an example for the disciples to copy (‘the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven….’), but in St. Mark’s Gospel the point lies not in the child’s attitude, but in the attitude of the others towards him. We need to bear in mind that the Jewish attitude toward children at that time differed very much from the one prevalent today. Now, there is a tendency to idealise childhood as the happy age of innocence and simple faith, but for the Jews during the time of Jesus, a child was considered a person of no importance, meriting no attention or favours. In this passage the disciples are not exhorted to be like children, but to welcome the lowly ones.

Jesus acknowledges that there is greatness in discipleship. We must remember, however, that there is a difference between ambition and service. This little child whom Jesus embraces represents every child in the world and everyone who is needy, helpless, poor or sick. These are the weakest members of the community who receive little attention, the ones who are easily overlooked by those whose energy is devoted to their own advancement in power. The lowly one is at the centre of Jesus’ community, not outside the circle of importance. If we receive for Christ’s sake those who have little importance in the world’s eyes, it is as if we are embracing Christ himself and the Father who sent him. There is such a thing as rank in the sight of God – he, who is last and is servant to all, is the one who is first in God’s estimation.

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”  But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

– Mark 9:30-37


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