Before the passage of Mark 9:33, we have the passage of Mark 9:2, where Mark describes an event called the Transfiguration. Some of the disciples had been with Jesus at a mountain when the face of Jesus was transfigured right before Moses and Elijah appeared next to him. Mark says that John, James and Peter were with Jesus when this happened. This moment had been transformative to the disciple’s experience. They knew that their leader was the guy to save Israel from captivity. Jesus indeed was the new Moses and the greatest prophet of all times.
Then we come to the passage of Mark 9:33. Jesus tells them: “Guys, I have news for you. I am going to die but I will rise three days later.” The disciples do not understand why Jesus says this because they actually believe that Jesus is the Messiah. So they do what is natural to do: start thinking about who will be the next leader in the group. When Jesus asks them what they are talking about, they don’t want to tell him they were debating who is greatest among them. Then Jesus grabs a little boy and tells them that in the Kingdom of God, the greatest person is the servant.
The inner circle
I see three interesting elements in this story, one about being in the circle of Jesus, another about being in charge, and the last one about having control. Regarding the inner circle, let’s remember that the disciples had just come back from a moment where Jesus experienced a transfiguration. I do not even know how to explain this. Jesus had shown them something that no one had ever seen in their lives. They were in the inner circle of the Messiah. They just saw Moses and Elijah. Therefore, when Jesus goes away one of these three disciples will have the right to be the successor or the new king of Israel, right? I imagine John saying something like, ‘Guys I loved Jesus more than anyone else’. Then James would say something like, ‘I have served Jesus the most, I have been with Jesus the most, since we were little, I should be the new king.’ Then Peter, would probably say, ‘Guys, ok, ok, you are both alright, but I am the one who knows how to tell people what to do. I am a natural, right? I have been telling fisherman how to do their jobs for a long time, I have caught more fish than anyone else around.’
And then Jesus comes, and he has a little suggestion around their criteria. It is not about who spent more time with him, it is not about who gave him more affection, it is not about who has the most powerful voice. And it is not like there is no order. There is a way to be greatest in the world of Jesus. There is an order in this Kingdom. The criterion for being the greatest in the Kingdom of God, the House of God, the world in which God reigns, is…being the least. The lower you are the greater you are.
Now, according to logic, this is called contradiction. The key thing to remember is that this is a contradiction in places of human rule on Planet Earth but not where God reigns. In the Kingdom of God, in places where God is King, all creation, every single creature has a right and a voice and those who sound the least, those who are in the back of the line of worldly prestige, of power and of reputation, these are the ones at the front of the line in the House of God. Being in the inner circle of any group will not polarize God to think you are first in line. Being part of the X church or the Y club will not give us a single point in the presence of God. It does not matter if you are Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Sunni Muslim, reformed Jewish, rich, white, black, pretty, fit or educated, what counts to God is how much we serve.
Being the greatest
The second element is about being the greatest. (I share my experience having two leaders tell me their purpose in their careers, one seeking to take the next step up and the other one to do a good job and contribute.) In the story, Jesus just finished saying something really weird. The Messiah is supposed to be murdered and then come back in three days. That is so confusing! But the disciples do not pay that much attention to the substance of the situation, they are really concerned of who will be in charge. If someone asked you ‘would you rather be a member or a boss in a team,’ what would your answer be? Most people I know, including me, would prefer being the boss of any group than being a member. I mean, it looks better on the resume, right? Plus, that way I don’t have to be arguing with anybody.
The kingdom of God demands that we switch this form of thinking. In the world where God is truly Lord, the big guys did not try to be big guys, they are actually getting dirty working, cleaning, serving, constructing, loving, engineering, entertaining, moving, producing, accounting and building up. In the world where God is truly Lord, people do not have to waste time thinking about positions and rewards. After thinking about the two ways of looking at a career, I have come to the conclusion that it would be foolish to look at a career as an opportunity to climb to the top. Instead, I think the most productive way of thinking about opportunities, including careers, is to serve others. Can you imagine us having this mentality wherever we go? Can you imagine politicians thinking about their people first always? Can you imagine businessmen people thinking about their employees and customers first? The idea of serving others can transform our efforts in a way that produces better results.
Control and our ways
As a last element, something must be said about control. There is no doubt that the debate of who was greatest had to do with having control of this new Christian group. ‘Who will be in charge’ could have been another version of this question. We love control. We need to control to get things done. We like having the freedom to make our own choices and we like it even better when our choices are taking up by others. We love to have people do what we tell them to, but according to this story, this motivation should be questioned.
Please notice that Mark says that the disciples were all debating this. The question of who will be in charge did not involve just two disciples, there was a debate among, at least, several of them. It is something most of us suffer from. Most of us fight for control. And we hesitate to admit. When we are asked why we fight we never say that we fight for control. We show our great criteria or logic for why we are qualified to make decisions. Mark paints a picture where the disciples need to confess this problem to Jesus, the problem of wanting to be in control, in charge. And when they do it, they hesitate, they are not proud.
Wanting to be in control is something dangerous. It is dangerous because this desire can cause stress, anxiety, anger, and worst, division. Instead of control, Jesus offers them becoming like a child, an individual with the least of rights in that society. Being a child means you are not concerned with titles, you are at the bottom of society; you cannot control much since everything you have is really owned by your parents. By picking up a kid, Jesus is saying that his way is not one of control but one of service, one of self-less work.
Before I conclude, I want you to imagine right now the following picture: Mark may be writing this passage as an allegory of God talking to the disciples 40 years after Jesus dies. At this point there is chaos in Jerusalem and in all of Judea. At this point in history, the church has multiple leaders spread all over the region. The problem is that many of these leaders have different views of what Christianity should look like. And here it is, Mark writing about the coming of Jesus again, highlighting the fact that yes, these leaders have been with Jesus, they have received a revelation from God, but none of these things entitle them to become rulers of Christianity. The ruler of the Christian life is not John, is not Peter, nor James. The Kingdom of God has one ruler and the rest of us are members, those of us wanting to be great must become servants of the least of all.
(Anecdote of José and Yeya Oller)
The history of the church is plagued with division. History tells us that the church was very divided in the first and second century over control. The division continued in the year 1000 when the East split the Church into the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Then the Reformation came and divided the Western church. And today we continue to like to tell others how to do things right. Coincidentally, Mark tells the story of a carpenter who, at one point, showed us a better way. Whenever we seek to impose our decisions and our choices on others, we reject this carpenter’s offer to serve, and be great. As much of a contradiction as it may look like, our churches, our families and our lives will reflect the Kingdom of God to the extent that we replace our desire to control with the mandate to serve, to be there for others. Instead of looking for more power, we must focus on our mission serving the least among ourselves, carrying the weak and the sick, and loving the neglected. When we do that, then we will be truly great.