September 19, 2021 / 17th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Jeremiah 11:18-20 / Second Reading James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a / Gospel Mark 9:30-37
Great or Good?
The twelve disciples were by no means the sharpest knives in the drawer. Time and again in Mark’s gospel they come across as complete knuckleheads who can’t seem to grasp who Jesus is and what he is trying to teach them. They are consistently foolish and slow of heart to believe.
· In today’s reading Jesus tells them for the second time what will happen to him when he gets to Jerusalem: he will be betrayed, suffer, be killed and then rise again. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying – but are too afraid to ask any questions.
Last Sunday, Jesus told his disciples for the first time this same message about what would happen to him in Jerusalem. Peter’s response is to rebuke Jesus and to tell him this must not happen. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Between these two episodes, Jesus expresses his frustration with the disciples, saying: “How much longer must I be among you?” “How much longer must I put up with you?” The patience of Jesus wears thin because of his disciples’ failure to grasp his message, because they lack both faith and understanding.
As today’s gospel reading continues, we see how utterly clueless the disciples are. After hearing from Jesus the terrible events that are in store for him in Jerusalem- what do the disciples do? They proceed to have an extended argument among themselves about which of them is the greatest! Imagine that. Their ignorance and shallowness is astounding!
What is both consistent and surprising throughout Mark’s gospel is the thickheadedness of the twelve disciples. Time and again it is apparent that they just don’t get Jesus. They are impressed by his miracles, but are unclear about who Jesus is, why he has come, what he intends to do, and how he will do it. They keep following Jesus – but they would probably have found it difficult to explain exactly why.
Those disciples just don’t seem to get Jesus, and perhaps – neither do we. Neither do we. Like the first disciples, we find many of the things that Jesus says and does to be baffling, challenging and even disturbing. Must we deny ourselves and take up a cross? Do we need to lose our lives in order to find true life? Should we really love our enemies? How does one go about being last of all and servant of all? And even after 2,000 years of theological reflection, we still struggle to understand why someone as good and loving as Jesus should have to suffer and die such a miserable death.
We are slow to understand Jesus, because consciously or unconsciously we suspect that if and when we do, we would need to change: our lives, our values, our priorities would necessarily be transformed. Like those disciples we are more concerned with our status than we are with understanding Jesus.
We live in a culture that is preoccupied with greatness. Much of life is a competition: Who is better? Who is more deserving? Who is the best? Greatness is measured in a variety of ways.
By wealth – how much you have accumulated, what you own, what you can afford to do?
By education – what’s your class rank, how many advanced degrees do you have, what schools did you attend?
By achievement – what have you accomplished, how high on the ladder have you climbed, what offices have you held, what are you known for?
By power – how much influence do you have, are you respected and/or feared by others, do you have authority to make decisions?
By winning – Coach Vince Lombardi famously said: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” In the sports world, greatness is measured by winning. As in sports, so in politics and in business, winning is the key to greatness.
It’s not surprising, then, that the world has a hard time recognizing the greatness of Jesus. His story lacks any of the usual attributes we associate with greatness. He came into this world in a most unlikely fashion. He lived a short and unpredictable life. He suffered an unglorious death, followed by an unexpected resurrection. And then, unbelievably, he returned in mercy and peace to those undeserving disciples who had denied and failed him.
The gospels do not tell a story of one who brilliantly climbed the ladder of success. Instead it is a story of downward mobility: Christ humbled himself, taking the form of a servant in human likeness, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. In a world that is impressed by the Greatest of All Time, the GOATs, Christ comes among us as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world by his death and resurrection.
As Christians we are rightly impressed by what Jesus has done on our behalf. But Jesus did not come to impress us. He came to save us. He came to change us, to change us from enemies of God to friends of God, from sinners to saints, from no people to God’s people. We are not changed by admiring Jesus but by following Jesus, by seeking to become more and more like Jesus. Our goal is not greatness, but goodness.
Goodness is characterized by a willingness to serve and to sacrifice, seeking opportunities to bless others. Goodness is expressed in humility and faithfulness. Goodness is inclined in the direction of generosity and compassion. Goodness takes risks for the sake of the Truth, and returns good for evil.
Jesus demonstrates what goodness is and what goodness does. Goodness isn’t easy – and it doesn’t come naturally. It’s not how the world operates. Which is why it was hard for the disciples to understand, why they didn’t “get” Jesus. It’s why we may not be sure we want to get Jesus. Following his example is neither easy nor popular. Because this is so, Pastor David Lose recommends three simple prayers for all would-be followers of Jesus.
Sometimes I think there are three short prayers that pretty much sum up the Christian life, and they came to mind as incredibly helpful to pray when we consider Jesus’ teaching. The first is in response to his counter-cultural command that the first must be last and that true greatness lies in service. It is as short as it is simple: “Lord, help us.” The second comes when we fall short of our ideals, giving in to insecurity and fear and looking out for ourselves first: “Lord, have mercy.” And the third is when we realize that even as we fall short, yet Jesus still died for us, still lives for us, still loves us more than anything: “Thanks be to God.” For Jesus does not give up on his disciples – not then and not now – and still offers us a different vision of greatness that can lead us to imagine and work toward a whole different world.
Lord help us.
Lord have mercy.
Thanks be to God.