Sometimes when teaching, the question will come up, “What did Jesus really mean by that?”
Jesus says something so outlandish that surely, we think, he must have meant something other than what he said. Sayings such as “give to everyone who begs from you,” “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” “anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” come immediately to mind.
Then sometimes, I think we are like the lawyer who came to Jesus inquiring about what he must do to inherit eternal life. In this case, the lawyer knows the correct answer, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But it goes on to say, “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Like this lawyer, sometimes we really do understand, but we seek to make ourselves feel better by pretending otherwise, when really we just don’t like the answer.
The passage from the gospel of Mark, referenced above is another of those in which Jesus seems to be speaking in riddles. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This came in response to the disciples arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest.
To understand Jesus’ words, this must be set in the context of his entire ministry. This ministry had begun with Jesus coming into Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near (is at hand); repent, and believe in the good news.’”(Mark 1:14b-15).
When we hear Jesus speaking of the kingdom of God, we tend to think of that world and that life on the other side of the grave. We think of “heaven.” To the disciples of Jesus, this language of the nearness of the kingdom meant something different. It raised hopes that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah who would restore Israel to her former glory and expel her enemies. Their idea of the “kingdom” was much more this worldly.
The truth is not an “either-or” but a “both-and.” Jesus came to inaugurate the “kingdom of God” (rule of God, reign of God). It is a kingdom that begins in this world in the Lordship of Christ and will indeed continue into all eternity. The difficulty for the followers of Jesus has always been in trying to live out the “kingdom life” in this world. Truth be told, we still don’t understand Jesus on this matter.
When the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, I can imagine it centering around things like who is going to be the vice president, who is going to be secretary of state, etc. Even though Jesus has just told them for the second time that he was going to die, Mark states very clearly “they did not understand this.”
We still equate greatness with power, with fame, with wealth. When we think of great people we think perhaps of President Obama, or Bill Gates, or the late Steve Jobs. We think of beautiful actors or gifted athletes. A great football team is the one that wins all of its games. Greatness exists in being able to make a name for yourself.
Please do not misunderstand. I am in no way belittling any of this. But do understand, that God seems to have a different standard of greatness and it exists in things such as love, mercy, and humble service. Again, I am not the one to judge such things; only God can do that.
But just maybe there is more true greatness to be found in the hospice volunteer who sits laughing with or reading to a dying woman than in the baseball player who gets paid $10 million a year for hitting 40 home runs. Because after all, “whoever wants to be first among you must be last of all and servant of all.”