Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, does not seek fame and recognition. He does not want to be the centre of attention. As he travels with His disciples, He wants to avoid notice. This is especially true when He is teaching His disciples about the fate of the new humanity. It is a difficult teaching. His disciples are puzzled by it. But it is blunt enough: the Son of Man is guided by the hand of God, but He will be killed by human hands. They hear the words, but can the disciples understand what He is saying? Their minds and hearts are still bound to the ‘Things of the Human’ and not the ‘Things of God’. They want to avoid suffering and pursue high status. As they are so deeply self-centred, they are naturally afraid of losing. They are so afraid; they won’t even ask Jesus to expand on His theme. Instead …..
On the way, they were having an argument – the same old one that is around today. Who is the greatest? Jesus, the Teacher, sits down and gathers the Twelve, who will guide the new humanity (notice there were others there too, since a child is at hand as a prop). For Jesus, the Great are those who engage and work with the Fathers Love. These are not interested in their own status. Rather, the new humanity goes out to meet all and to lift their basic humanity to a new level. And so, those who would be first do not seek their own glory, but the health and wellbeing (salvation) of others. How it is with God, who is the first and the greatest, should be how it is with all who seek to be the first and the greatest.
We have to be careful here that our all too human mindset does not doctor the teaching of Jesus to make it fit our own purposes. We might tell ourselves that we have to endure a period of doing ‘lowly stuff’ in order to get to the higher stuff. If being a servant is the quickest route to being the greatest, then we will be servants! But all the while we will be thinking that we are in reality better than everyone else. It’s hard for disciples to let Jesus break open the meaning of ‘first’ and ‘greatest’ and fill it with a new meaning. They sidestep Him and renegotiate the terms. Consider Luke’s ironic suggestion, ‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. That they cannot repay you means you are blessed, and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous’. (Lk 14:13-14)
Jesus places a child in the heart of them. The child is a tragic and eternal symbol of the powerlessness which many will seek to exploit. Jesus, in setting the child before them as their spiritual director, commands a mystical transformation to the mindset of his disciples. It goes something like this …..
When we begin with the least, we subvert the normal ranks of society. Those at the top – the rich – are refusing invitations because they receive too many. Those at the bottom are excluded. At first glance, it seems they have nothing to offer. But, when we say that the path to the Fathers heart goes through the welcome we offer to those whom no one else will invite, we undercut the world and turn everything on its head.
Furthermore, the word least has another meaning. In this meaning it can be applied to the socially least and the socially most. Dag Hammarskjold once said, ” People comment of Jesus’ lack of moral principles. He sat at table with publicans and sinners and consorted with harlots. Did He do this to obtain their votes? Or did He think that, perhaps, He could convert them by such appeasement? Or was His humanity rich and deep enough, to make contact, even in them, with what in human nature is common to all people, indestructible beauty, and upon which the future has to be built?” (Markings, p.157)
Here is the great breakthrough. The naked face of our shared humanity reveals the face of God to all. This is what is most beautiful and most valuable. It is the greatest and the first precisely because it is the least. When we make ourselves the servants of this last, welcoming what is common to all and excluding none of it, we find ourselves strangely in pole position.