Mark 9:30-37

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

This is the second time, according to Mark, that Jesus said something like this. And it’s clear that his followers wished that he would stop mentioning it.  “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” They didn’t want him to explain what he meant, because they were afraid of what they might hear.

They still can’t make any sense of a shamefully executed Messiah. Christians today read the story of Jesus in light of Isaiah‘s suffering servant (especially Isaiah 53), but as far as we can tell, people in Jesus’ time did not identify the suffering servant with a messiah. (In 45:1 Isaiah says that God‘s Messiah is actually the Persian emperor Cyrus!) So Jesus’ followers are not ready to make that identification. It makes no sense to them, not yet.

Nor can they make any sense of the way Jesus speaks of his resurrection. The only sort of resurrection they were expecting was a general resurrection after all God’s opponents are vanquished. But Jesus is stretching the term so that it applies to him while God’s opponents are still running things without noticing anything new. What sort of resurrection is that?

So they wish he would just drop the subject altogether. (Probably Mark’s readers still have trouble making sense of this decades after the fact—that may be why Mark wrote this Gospel the way he did.)

Both Jesus’ first followers and Mark‘s later community are also struggling to figure out how this overturns their very ideas of success and greatness.

“Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” That’s one of the things his followers were afraid to ask him about.

And maybe we would rather not ask him about it either. After all do we really believe this? I’m not sure I know how.

Politicians, no matter the party, love to say that all they care about is serving the people, but we know that this is NOT all they care about. There’s nothing more ludicrous than people who try to impress us with their selflessness. For them acting selfless is a strategy for winning a race: act like you don’t want to be first, so you can wind up first after all.

But apparently that’s not what Jesus meant. He meant STOP WANTING TO BE FIRST! And that’s the part I don’t know how to do.

When I manage to be self-effacing, there’s always a deeper wish, often unacknowledged, that people (or at least God) will commend me for how selfless I am. That’s still wanting to be first.

Or I think about one of my favorite childhood stories, the Ugly Duckling. The “duckling” turns out to be a swan, who can then look down on its nest mates as inferiors. That’s turning the tables, but it’s still wanting to be first.

So I don’t know how to stop that. 

What I do know is that, even when I’m fooling myself about what I really want, sometimes I do forget about myself, and about my status, and that those are the best moments I’ve ever known.

The word for that is grace.