There’s a segment of Jesus Christ Superstar where the apostles have all had way too much wine, and they’re singing, rather sloppily, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it if I tried. Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels, and they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died.” Makes it sound like you had to fill out an application and pass an interview to become a disciple and then, eventually, you’d be famous.
Ah well, rock opera doesn’t always follow the script as it was originally written. Because the twelve whom Jesus chose to be his chief disciples had few special talents among them. Let’s face it; the disciples were not the pick of the litter. Their applications might have been less than adequate. Interviews might have gone badly. For us, that could be a source of encouragement. If they were slow to catch on to what Jesus was doing, it should be easy for even the slowest of us to have hope.
These disciples have been with Jesus for perhaps two years by now. They’ve come to see God’s self-revelation in Jesus. So they do conclude that Jesus is indeed the Messiah that they have been waiting for. But when Jesus says to them, “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” – they don’t get it. What? The Son of Man would suffer rejection and death before he could know vindication? Preposterous. Not believable.
Not only that, but instead of focusing on Jesus’ prediction of betrayal, death, and resurrection, they’re putting their heads together trying to figure out who among them is the greatest. Can’t you imagine Jesus just shaking his head in frustration?
So Jesus sits down and calls the Twelve to him. Sits down. That’s how rabbis taught. When I taught I stood in front of the class or perched on the edge of my desk or leaned on my podium. If I sat, it was on a high kitchen stool. I wanted to be able to look over the whole class. But rabbis sat down. At first he tells them that the only way to have glory in God’s eyes is never to seek that glory, but instead always to offer help to everyone. To prove the point, Jesus presents a child to them, one too young to ask why people offer gifts or show concern for others. To accept, care for, and serve a child such as this one, someone who cannot be expected to give and serve in return, is to receive Jesus. That’s as true today as it was in Jesus’ time. As Mark says, if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (9:35).
Here’s a little story about that from American history. During the days of the Revolutionary War there was a tremendous need to build more and more forts. Ammunition had to be kept in safe places; people had to be protected. So strong safe shelters were needed.
On one occasion while a group of men was busy building one of these forts, they were struggling to put a particularly heavy log into place. The soldier who was in charge of the work crew called out “Heave ho! Heave away, men! Heave ho! Heave away, men!” The words were a chant to help the soldiers pull together as they attempted to budge this large log. But budge it would not. Try as they might, the men could not get that log into place. Just as they were about to abandon their attempts, a man on horseback rode up. “Why don’t you help them with the lifting,” he asked the heave-ho-chanting soldier. “Don’t you see that the log is heavy?”
The soldier answered, “I am a corporal. I can’t help with that kind of work!”
The man on horseback dismounted and went over to the workmen. “Now,” he said as he added his strength to the task, “all together, men. Heave ho! Heave ho!” And up went the log into its place. As the man went back to his horse, he said to the idle soldier, “Next time you have a heavy log to lift and you need help, just call for your Commander-in-Chief.” Needless to say, that’s a George Washington story. He was obeying the words of Jesus: If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. Jesus meant – and means -- that one of the best things we can do is to help someone else lift a heavy load.
Time magazine some time ago reported the story of a $75,000 award from a prestigious French institute given to a Frenchman named Jean Vanier for his work among the adult mentally retarded – the Wounded Ones, as they were called. The money went toward building a home for more of them. Vanier had already built one. The homes that Vanier began establishing in 1964, starting with two Wounded Ones he took into his own home, have burgeoned into an organization called L’Arche, the French words for the Ark. There are over 5000 – people. Not 5000 mentally disabled. Not 5000 care takers. Just 5000 “differently-abled people,” as my Aunt Liz would have said. (She also called her handi-capped friends handi-capabled instead of handi-capped.)
The special character of these Arche homes is that there is no differentiation between staff and patients. There are no barriers between the handicapped and the non-handicapped. They are simply people who live together in an atmosphere of peace and harmony. Sounds like a lesson taken from today’s second reading which talks about those who make peace. It reminds us that arguing about who is the greatest is against the spirit of the Scriptures. It’s worth our time to consider the relationship between striving to be the person out front and obtaining the peace the Gospel promises.
The public raves about the first in entertainment -- look at the Emmys --, in politics, in sports, doesn’t it? But it soon forgets who was second. It soon forgets last year’s winner. Babe Ruth slipped further into history when Hammering Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. Ruth’s life-time record was 714 home runs. By the time Hank Aaron retired, he had hit a total of 755 home runs. Babe Ruth had been eclipsed.
There are Oscars, Grammys, pennants, cups, trophies in every area to focus our attention on who’s out front.
Competition can bring out the best in a person; the will to win is important. But isn’t it true that competition can also stimulate a desire to lord it over others? Isn’t it true that some children are signed up for Little League because Dad is more concerned about his son or daughter being a hero than he is for the welfare of his child? Wouldn’t it be better if we emphasized the most improved player award rather than the most outstanding player award?
We place a lot of emphasis on being first in a way that can be destructive. But. On the other hand. In a gospel sense, it’s good to be first. The man out front (let me rephrase that – the person out front) is apt to be the one who gets kicked. Maybe attacked. Often harshly criticized. Nevertheless, it is also the man – the person – out front who takes the responsibility. It can be a Gospel service to be out front.
As long as being out front isn’t really a striving to consider oneself above others, a “look-at-me-I’m-doing-such-good-service-for-the-least-of-these” self-indulgent pat on the back. That’s when the criticisms are heard. Church people have such a holier-than-thou attitude. They’re so judgmental.
But that doesn’t happen when we live by the Gospel. There’s no need to compare ourselves with others as the disciples were doing. There’s no need to be better than others in order to maintain our self-respect. We can be content with who we are, with who God intends us to be, and with our God-given gifts. We can be at peace.