“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,
either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10
Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B:
Disciples Behaving Badly
I have often sat at the bedside of dying loved ones. In doing so I have witnessed and participated in many conversations about death. Some conversations are beautiful, peaceful, and a real source of blessing to those they are leaving behind. Family members will often sit and hold the hands of a dying person while they cry and silently take in the moment while saying goodbye. They may not understand all that is happening, but they know it is a time like none other in their lives and so they are quiet. They are usually open to what is happening, and take in all that their dying loved one wants to say to them. Perhaps things will make sense later, perhaps not, but they are in the moment.
I have observed other families who approach death and dying from the perspective of denial. A dying person may try to share how they feel but the relative or friend thinks that is too negative and that if they talk about death it may come quicker. These loved ones mean well, because they possibly want more time, more memories, and even the restored life for their dying person. Some find it hard to let go. However, these people are focused on what they want and so they can miss the depth of what the dying loved one wants. And sadly, they miss incredible opportunities to be present and help their loved one move peacefully from this life into the next with the support of faith, hope and love.
The disciples are met with an “end of days” conversation with Jesus in our text (Mark 9:30-37). It is a special and intimate time between Jesus and his closest disciple, as he tries to share something deeply personal with them. He says, ‘I will be betrayed. I will die. I will rise again’. This is one of those moments when the disciples should be hanging on every word, struggling not to miss anything, a deep life-changing moment. But the disciples don’t get it. They miss the moment. They do not understand. They are afraid. So they do not attempt to truly be present with Jesus in this revealing and crucial conversation.
The disciples, in a sense, act like children, and in their fear, turn to bickering and lose focus on the significance of the time at hand. In a matter of moments, they go from hearing Jesus reveal plans for his death and resurrection to arguing about who is the greatest among them. How much more childish could grown men act? To their credit, they know they have behaved badly. When Jesus questions them about their conversation, you can imagine them sheepishly avoiding eye contact and mumbling. They know they have been caught by Jesus doing something of which he would not approve. They are embarrassed and ashamed, so they probably silent with nothing to say.
Jesus takes advantage of the teachable moment and calls the disciples to him. He also, ironically, considering their childish behaviour, brings a child into their circle of conversation. In a most calm manner, Jesus tells them how truly wrong they are, not just for engaging in the greatness conversation but also for how they went about measuring each other’s greatness. The great one, the first one, in Jesus’ words is not one who will be measured by merit or strength, but by ‘service’ to all. It is a countercultural message that undoubtedly got the disciples attention. I can again imagine them going from avoiding eye contact with Jesus, to looking up in surprise, making sure they hear Jesus right. This just cannot be so, greatness measured by service?
Then to really drive the message home, Jesus embraces the child to show how serious he is about caring for the little ones and explains his message to the disciples in a way they cannot ignore. “If you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me and also the one who sent me” (36). It doesn’t get any simpler or clearer than that. Greatness is not about great deeds or observing the letter of the law. Greatness in the eyes of Jesus is about welcoming the small, the often ignored, the insignificant. Greatness is about taking notice of those who are often slighted or misunderstood – the lowly.
How sad that because Jesus foretold his death the disciples’ became confused and fearful ignoring his words. It is hard to imagine how they felt? We have the benefit of learning from the disciples’ childish behaviour and hopefully strive for true greatness, the kind Jesus challenges all to live. We are called to embrace servanthood, to notice the children, the small, the wounded and misunderstood among us. The disciples missed out on a key moment of intimacy, blessing, sharing, and learning by letting fear and ego selfishness get in their way.
“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'” To welcome a child is to extend the simplest of acts to an individual whom others might dismisses as insignificant, lacking any accomplishments, greatness, status, or useful value. Jesus invites us to welcome every person in the same way, without regard for their importance. To welcome another person in that way, Jesus says, is to welcome him, and in turn to welcome the God who sent him. To be child-like (not childish) means not searching for significance in titles, honours, or professional successes – not these are wrong – but, it means, simply enjoying the knowledge that we are ordinary people loved by an extraordinary God.
May we learn to be open to what life-changing conversations may come our way so that we might be truly present in all of life, and most specifically in those moments that might change our lives.