My Dear People,
The question that Jesus answers in today’s Gospel is: “Who is the greatest?” This happened when Jesus and the disciples came to Capernaum for the last time, arriving at the house of Peter and Andrew, which Jesus adopted as his own (1:29; 2:1). In private once again. Jesus takes the occasion to question his disciples about their discussion on the road (mentioned twice, with Mark’s theme of Christian discipleship prominent throughout the travel narrative) (8:31-10:52).
The disciples are silent with embarrassment, since they had been discussing who was the greatest. This is the second time that Jesus’ prophecy of passion has been followed by a completely inappropriate response (see 8:32) Having just heard Jesus speak of his willing acceptance of rejection and death, they are suddenly preoccupied with jealous competition for privilege and prestige. No conversation could have been more contrary to what he was trying to impart to them. Yet, Mark, once again, does not display the disciples’ failures so his readers can marvel at their ineptitude. Rather, it is to bring us face-to-face with our human tendencies to seek our own glory in competition with others, which hinders us from yielding ourselves to God’s marvelous plan.
Jesus sits, the customary posture for a teacher in the ancient world (see 4:1) and calls the Twelve around him for a further lesson on discipleship. For those appointed to leadership in the community Jesus is founding (3:13-15), there is all the more need to preclude a false idea of authority. If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all. To be first means to have priority over others; for instance the “leading men of Galilee” (literally, the “firsts of Galilee” in 6:21) had more influence, prestige, and power than ordinary folk. Jesus does not condemn the innate desire for grandeur in the human heart. But he turns human thinking on its head: the only way to fulfill these desires, paradoxically, it to put oneself last in priority. And this is not merely a pious thought; it must be expressed in concrete actions, by becoming a servant of all. This was a radically unconventional idea in the ancient world, where humility and meekness were viewed not as virtues but as signs of weakness. Those in authority should expect to be served and showered with honors. No one in their right mind would aspire to be a servant. The early Church’s embrace of this new ethic was part of what made Christianity so novel and attractive to many in the ancient world. The same principle is expressed by St. Paul to the believers at Philippi: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3-4; see 1 Pet. 5:3).
In prophetic style, Jesus follows the pronouncement with a symbolic action: he puts his arms around a child. The connection with his previous statement (v. 35) would be natural to his listeners, since the word child (both in Aramaic and Greek) can also mean servant, Jesus is continuing to overturn their worldview and system of values. In ancient society, children were viewed as nonpersons who had no legal rights or status of their own. Already in the Old Testament God had revealed his special love for the lowly, who are often overlooked or oppressed by the powerful (Deut 10:18 Ps. 146:9 Isa. 29:19). With his gesture, Jesus shows human affection for this child (see Mark 10:13-167) and at the same time teaches his disciples to have a whole new esteem for and responsibility toward those who seem the most helpless or inconsequential.
Jesus explains his gesture: Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me. To receive a little one is to accept, lovingly serve, and care for those who most need it and cannot repay it. To receive “in Jesus’ name” is to welcome such a person for the sake of Jesus and deference to him. This implies that Jesus identifies with those who are most insignificant in the eyes of the world—so much so that he himself is mysteriously present wherever they are welcomed. Moreover, to receive them is to receive the one who sent me. A principle recognized in the ancient world, as today, is that an emissary should be accorded the same respect and dignity due to the authority who sent him. Jesus is making an astounding claim: our treatment of the lowly, the “nobodies” of the world, is the measure of our treatment of God himself. The reference to the Father as “the one who sent me” alludes to Jesus’ incarnation, using the same verb “send” (apostellò) from which “apostles” is derived. Jesus is the apostle of the Father. Thus, all that his apostles are and do is an extension of his own apostleship, the mission on which he has been sent into the world.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente