“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. Yes, of course, Christians eventually read and still read the story of Jesus in light of Isaiah‘s suffering servant, especially Isaiah 53. Most of Handel’s “Messiah” is based on Isaiah. But as far as we can tell, people in Jesus’ time did not identify the suffering servant with any kind of messiah. The only messiah, or anointed one, that Isaiah actually mentions is the Persian king Cyrus! So Jesus’ followers are not ready to make that identification with a suffering servant. It makes no sense to them, not yet.
Later, of course, Christians couldn’t hear those passages without thinking of Jesus, but that was later, after his resurrection.
Now Jesus is starting to speak of his resurrection already, but that didn’t help either. They weren’t sure what he meant. The only sort of resurrection they had ever heard of back then was a resurrection of everybody at the end of history, after all God’s opponents are vanquished. But Jesus is stretching the term so that it applies to him well before the end of history, while God’s opponents are still running things—and not paying much attention to what a few starry eyed religious fanatics have been reporting. What sort of resurrection is that? That’s not what they signed up for.
So he’s just not making sense. Except maybe he is. Maybe they are catching on to what he’s hinting at about their own lives, and they just don’t like it. Maybe they don’t want him to say any more because it might ruin their dreams of greatness. Maybe if they don’t ask him what he means, they can keep planning how to capitalize on his growing fame.
“Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” Maybe that’s the thing his followers were really afraid to ask him about.
And maybe we would rather not ask him about it either. After all do we really believe this? I say I do, but 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 former nest mates as inferiors. That’s turning the tables, but we like the story because the swan gets to be first after all. That’s what we want.
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. Grace isn’t something we achieve. It’s something that happens to us.
Maybe that’s why Jesus makes them consider a child. We’re told that back then children weren’t regarded has sentimentally as we tend to regard them today. Maybe not, but I tend to follow the idea that, because of how we’re made, at some level we can’t help responding tenderly to their softened features and need for our care, just as we can’t help feeling a certain tenderness for puppies and kittens that we don’t feel as much for the grown-up versions. We might even respond that way to a baby alligator! I saw lots of people doing that on Facebook last week.
Children epitomize how we can be drawn out of ourselves, how we can stop even thinking about who’s first. You don’t have to be a parent to experience that. They also drive us crazy. But they’re still occasions where we can forget about ourselves. They’re gifts of grace no matter how many headaches they cause. They’re not the only way that grace comes to us, but they’re an example that lots of us recognize.
The ritual meal we Christians share is another way that grace comes to us, even when we don’t notice. It’s drawing us out of ourselves as we consume what we call the body and blood of an executed criminal who won’t stay executed. Sometimes we do notice what a topsy-turvy thing we’re doing here, and that’s grace upon grace.
Jesus turns our ideas of greatness on their heads. We don’t know what to do with that. But we know what it’s like to forget about ourselves in the faces of those who need our care. We know what it’s like to forget about ourselves when we internalize the life of the one who forgot about himself for the sake of all of us. Moments like that are happening all the time, and they’re sheer grace.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Look for that to come true in your life. Our faith promises that it will.