Scripture: Mark 9:33-37
Henry Ford, the man who made cars a way of life, once famously said, “Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built.” It is a bit of hyperbole, but it is not far off. The first successful gasoline powered automobile designed in the United States was made by brothers Frank and Charles Duryea of Springfield, Ma. Just two years later Frank won the first ever automobile race in the United States. The 1895 race took place in Chicago along a 52 mile course. Only six other fledging automobiles were fielded, two of which failed almost immediately. It took him ten hours and 23 minutes to make it to the finish line and he did so with an average speed of five miles per hour. Automobiles have come a long way since then, but the desire to race them has never changed. It just is not car racing either, if we can find a way to make it a competition then we do. A good example of this is last spring when the pandemic shut down live sports, Jelle’s Marble Runs, a YouTube channel that hosts the world’s first marble racing league saw subscribers increase by almost 1000% and views increase by over 300%. It does not matter what it is, if there is some way to make it competitive then there is someone who has dedicated an enormous amount of time to it so that they can be the best in the world.
Multiple studies have found that as a whole, humans tend to be competitive. Even people who claim they are not that competitive, tend to be. It is just they are much, much more selective and will only compete when they feel like the odds are in their favor to win. We like to win and so we will make anything into a competition if we think we have a good chance to declare victory. Even though the original disciples lived centuries before us, in a radically different context they would not have been much different. The desire to compete and be the best at something would have been just as familiar to them as it is to us. When we read this morning’s scripture, it can be easy for us to shake our heads in disappointment at the disciples. I think if we were being honest though, a lot of us might have joined in the argument the disciples were having. In this scripture Jesus does not rebuke them for being competitive, instead he changes the nature of the game. To be the best disciples we can be, we also need to learn how to succeed by the standards of God’s kingdom.
I think to really appreciate this morning’s scripture we need to try and put ourselves in the headspace of the disciples as much as possible. At the point of this morning’s scripture the disciples had been with Jesus for a while. They had seen a lot, and they had done a lot. They had been witnesses to some of Jesus’ greatest miracles. They had taken an active part in the distribution and collection of food for the feeding of 5,000 and the feeding of 4,000. Jesus had sent them out on their own in pairs to preach and do miracles in his name. They had seen the miracles, they had seen the crowds, and they had to be getting a sense that they were at the ground level of something truly special. However, I imagine two events had recently happened with the disciples that really fueled the discussion they were having on the road.
Jesus and disciples were traveling back to Capernaum from an unknown location. The first of two events that happened here is that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain where those three witnessed Jesus transfigured. They saw Jesus transform before their eyes, speak with Moses and Elijah, and then they heard the voice of God the Father boom from the heavens. The second event is that Jesus and three disciples returned to the nearest town to find the rest of the disciples were having a hard time. They had attempted to cast out a demonic spirit and absolutely failed at it. Jesus came in and saved the day, but the majority of the disciples did not have a good showing.
Given the background of those two events, it is easy to imagine how the argument about who is greatest might have happened. Even though one of the other gospels records that Jesus told Peter, James, and John to keep the event of the transfiguration to themselves I can only imagine that they let it slip to the other disciples that they had seen some amazing stuff up on the mountain. Perhaps Peter, James, or John even insinuated that maybe they would have been a bit more successful that the other disciples at casting out the impure spirit. From there we can easily imagine how the argument evolved. The other disciples start offering up all the reasons why there were exceptional circumstances that led to the failing. They then begin bringing up the past glories as well as the shortcomings of each other. Before you know it there is a full blown argument about which one of them is the greatest, the most like Jesus, and the future breakout star of this new movement they are the part of. I think it easy to not only imagine the context of the argument, but the way it actually happens. As they walk to Capernaum Jesus leads the way and the disciples are several paces back having this argument in hushed tones. They know if they get too loud Jesus is going to make this a teachable moment, but they also really want to make their case and win the argument. We also get the sense that this might not be the first time they have had this particular discussion on the road, because when Jesus calls them out on this it is easy to imagine the disciples all get super interested in staring and examining their feet. I cannot speak for you, but this is all so easy to imagine because it is the kind of stuff that still happens today. Even if we have not been personally involved in this kind of “who is greater” argument we have likely witnessed one at some point. For me this scripture helps establish that even though we are separated by time and culture, we do have quite a bit in common with the original disciples.
Not only do we engage is silly arguments like they did, but we also tend to measure success by the same standard of the original disciples. No doubt the disciples’ argument about who was greater revolved around topics such as who had accomplished more, who was the first to do something, who had the most name recognition among others, or who was the most respected by the elite. While the metrics have changed, we still often define success by the same means. Today success is still measured by the metric of bigger is better. The bigger the trophy, the bigger the paycheck, the bigger the house, the bigger the follower count, the bigger the number of likes are still what a lot of people chase.
It seems we have a natural tendency to be the biggest, be the fastest, and be the best. This natural competitive tendency is why the first automobile races happened as soon as there were enough automobiles to race. We also have a natural tendency to put a lot of time, effort, and energy into doing things we feel are important. It is just that what the majority feel is most important is to be the biggest, the fastest, and the best. We tend to equate success with being #1, and that seems to have been true for the disciples as well.
Notice in the scripture Jesus does not rebuke or scold the disciples. Instead, Jesus seeks to redirect the focus of the disciples. The natural competitive nature that pushes us to invest a lot of time and energy in success is not an inherent bad thing. In this scripture Jesus seeks to redirect the disciples’ energy away from one-upping each other to instead make invest energy in making a real kingdom difference in the world. Jesus lifts up two ways that we do this.
First, he states “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” This flips the whole notion of success on its head. The world defines success by being first and by having the most servants, but the measure of success used in God’s kingdom is in the inverse. Success is measured not in ambition but in humility, not in the amount of fame but in the number of people helped. Imagine how much different our world would be if instead of putting time and energy into how we can win by being number one, that time and energy was reinvested into lifting others up. Imagine how much positive change their would be in the world if the followers of Jesus stopped asking “what’s in it for me” or “what do I get out of it” but instead started asking “how can I give to benefit others.” We tend to treat life as a competitive, zero-sum race where there is one winner and second place is just the first loser. Yet, I believe in the kingdom of God it is a different sort of competition. It is a cooperative game that we only win when there are no losers. In the kingdom of God success and winning is not defined by how many people we are able to get ahead of, it is defined by how many people we are able to serve and put before ourselves.
The second way that Jesus lifts up how we can make a real kingdom difference in the world is by focusing on who we should be focused on lifting up. In this morning’s scripture Jesus gives a specific example: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” The society of first century was a highly stratified patriarchal society. Everyone had a good idea of where there place was, and children were not at the bottom. It is not that children were not valued, because of course they were. It is just in levels of authority children were at the bottom. This means when it came to privilege and prestige children were last, they were expected to know their place and they had to pay their dues so to speak. Jesus lifting up children in this passage intentionally circumvents this cultural standard. People in Jesus day would not take the time to welcome the child, they would address just the parent. By lifting up a child, Jesus is calling on his disciples to not only not to pursue putting themselves first but to focus on putting first all others, including the ones who are normally left out.
When it comes to helping people others, when it comes to putting others first, and being a servant to all we should not be willing to only help certain groups. By specifically lifting up children, Jesus named one of the most common people groups that the disciples would not have thought of serving. Today, there are continue to be groups of people that we do not think about helping. We might think they need to help themselves, they are not our problem, or we might be inclined to think we should help someone more deserving. Those honestly, are not very Christ-like thoughts. In talking about putting others first, Jesus specifically lifts up to his original disciples that we should be mindful of welcoming and helping those who others often will not even acknowledge. As Jesus’ followers today we should continue to do the same.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus tries to get his disciples to stop thinking in terms of always being first and success being defined by being the biggest or fastest. Instead Jesus tried to get his disciples to focus on the defining success as putting others first and serving all, especially those who are often overlooked. As we consider the history of humanity since the time of Jesus, it is clear this is a teaching of Jesus that has had a hard time sticking. May that not be true for us. As modern day disciples instead of competing to be considered the greatest in the eyes of the world may we instead cooperate to make the world a more kind and loving place. In doing so, may we help bring about God’s kingdom on earth.