The Gospel of Mark contains three Passion and Resurrection predictions. Three times in the Gospel, albeit with some differences in each, Jesus speaks about his suffering, death, and resurrection. After each of these predictions, there is a misunderstanding of what Jesus says. In the first instance, Peter misunderstands. He insists that Jesus must not suffer and die. In the third instance, the brothers, James and John, misunderstand. They ask for places on the right hand and left hand of Jesus in the kingdom.
It is the second prediction of the Passion and Resurrection, and what follows after, which is the Gospel text of today. Immediately after Jesus has spoken, Mark states unambiguously that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying. This is shown also by the silence with which they respond to Jesus’ question “What were you arguing about on the way?” The reason they do not respond is because they had been discussing which one of them was the greatest. They knew, even as they remained silent, that this kind of discussion was not appropriate and did not fit in with Jesus’ world view and scheme of things.
Be that as it may, some more important questions that the Gospel of today raises are these: How could the disciples, who had been so closely associated with Jesus and knew him so intimately, even consider thinking about greatness? Did not all the time they spent with Jesus have any effect on them at all? How come the values that Jesus lived and spoke about constantly, values of self abnegation, service, selflessness, and the like, have no impact on them?
The answer to these questions is provided in part by the first and second readings of today. The first reading spells out how the attitude of a righteous person, like Jesus, is not at all easy to accept. The righteous person is someone who is inconvenient and tiresome to many. There are two responses to such a person. The first is to ignore him and all that he stands for. However, sometimes, through his life of righteousness, he exposes us who are unrighteous. The second response, therefore, is to do away with him as quickly as one can. It is to test him with opposition, insult, and torture, in the hope that he will give up his position of righteousness and buckle under the pressure. It is to test his forbearance, and patience, and perseverance. It is to find out whether he is really serious about what he preaches and whether he will be able, in reality, to practice it. The disciples choose the first response. They pretend not to understand because what Jesus preaches is too difficult to translate into action. They prefer, instead, to go the way which most normally go. They prefer to walk the easy road, trod by most others; the road of power, prestige, and honour. The adversaries of Jesus, however, choose the second response. They will do away with Jesus. His presence, and all he stands for, is a threat to them. They will not tolerate this new way that he preaches. It is against everything that they want to be.
The reason they will do this is because, as James explains in the second reading of today, there is envy and selfish ambition in the very core of their being. There is a lack of wisdom and thus, disorder and wickedness of every kind. Their cravings and covetousness prevent them from seeing that there is another way. Their unchecked desires prevent them from daring to walk the path of selflessness and service. They would rather be served than serve.
Jesus, however, will make no compromise. He is convinced that the only way to live life, fully and completely, is through serving rather than being served. In his scheme of things, and in his view of life, the only way to be first is to be last; the only way to be master is by being servant. The only way to be No. 1 is by being No one. He makes this explicit, not only through his words, but also by his action of placing a child in front of the disciples. He points to the child, one who was regarded as a non-person, as his representative. In doing so, Jesus is telling his disciples, and each of us, that in his kingdom, egolessness, dying to oneself, and serving as he served, are the only ways through which one can hope to enter his kingdom.
Greatness in the kingdom overturns the usual perceptions we have of greatness and honour. It is almost normal to consider the first as first and the last as last. The challenge is to learn to think as God thinks, which runs counter to well-established behaviour patterns. We often pay lip service to the view that the “first shall be last,” as long as we are not challenged to put that view to the test. The readings of today then, issue a call and challenge to each of us to dare to see that there is another way: the way of being No one so that one can indeed be No. 1.