A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being ringside when my friend Jake Harmody Najjar (the same Jake who recently accompanied me to Syria) successfully defended his world kickboxing title, knocking out his opponent in the third round in rather spectacular fashion.
I confess that I don’t like seeing people knocked out (even though I know I’m in the business of knocking people out). Even so, it was a great moment – watching Jake run to the corner of the ring and jump up on the ropes, hands raised in triumph with a look of ecstasy on his face, and I was there with his other supporters – cheering and applauding – and we looked at each other and smiled, and experienced that very special sense of solidarity with Jake and his crew that you experience when your team wins a great contest. And it struck me, thinking about this in relation to today’s Gospel reading, how rarely you see this sort of thing in the Gospels.
I’m not referring, of course, to the absence of ring-fighting in the Scriptures (which goes without saying) but rather to the apparent paucity of team victories, where there’s an experience of oneness as the team celebrates together. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of that recorded in the life of Jesus, does there?
You get the feeling with Jesus and His disciples that they are almost never on the same wavelength. Indeed, I wonder if Jesus and His disciples had been with me watching that fight whether they would have been supporting the same corner! Jesus would have been supporting Jake, of course, but I have a feeling that the disciples would all have been supporting his opponent!
If you’re at all familiar with the New Testament I’m sure you know what I mean. Whenever you see Jesus on his feet cheering in the New Testament, you can almost rest assured that the disciples are sitting down silently with their arms folded across their chests. And whenever the disciples are cheering, Jesus is booing!
When you see Jesus partying, the disciples tend to be standing at a distance with His critics who are asking “why does your master associate with these riff-raff?” (eg. Matthew 9:11). When the disciples are trying to make space for Jesus and get rid of the children, Jesus is saying “No! Let the children come to me!” (eg. Mark 10:14)
When Jesus is enjoying a massage from a woman who is pouring costly ointment over His feet, His disciples are saying “this ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor” (Mark 14:5) whereas when the disciples get concerned about balancing their budgets He tells them “Sell you possessions and give the money to the poor” (Luke 12:33).
Jesus and His disciples just never seem to be on the same page, and nowhere is this misalignment more obvious, I think, than in the dialogue that takes place in our Gospel reading today, where both the disciples and Jesus are talking religion, but where the content of their dialogues makes clear that they have totally different understandings of what they are talking about!
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying 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.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:30-34)
It’s like something out of Monty Python, isn’t it! Jesus is talking about the path of discipleship, which is one of suffering. The disciples are discussing who is the greatest!
Of course I don’t imagine that they were literally discussing who was the greatest. Such discussions are normally disguised in such a way that they sound far more reputable. It is possible, of course, that any number of the disciples were prancing around like the early Cassius Clay, declaring “I am the greatest! I am the greatest!” but I suspect that this is more likely to be Mark’s, the Gospel writer’s, interpretation of what they were saying. More literally, they were probably discussing the contribution they each could make to Jesus’ government, once He established His new Kingdom.
No doubt Peter and James and John could each cite various impressive credentials that uniquely qualified them for the portfolio of Jesus’ deputy. No doubt each of them expressed only a desire to serve and to see their gifts used effectively in the service of the new Kingdom. It’s the Gospel-writer, Mark, who sees through this banter as to what’s really going on. They were arguing about who is the greatest!
I read an interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, entitled “How it happened: Inside the Malcolm Turnbull leadership coup”. The article outlined at some length the various conversations and confrontations that took place between Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop and Malcom Turnbull and their various supporters this last week, regarding government performance and how the Prime Minister had dealt with the issue of same-sex marriage and what the polls were showing. I think if the Gospel-writer Mark had written a similar article he would have summed up the dialogue in one line: “they were arguing about who is the greatest”.
The most depressing article I read this week regarded US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in his confrontation with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, over possible Russian military involvement in Syria. Kerry warned Lavrov that Russia should not get involved lest this lead to an escalation of the violence resulting in further unwanted civilian casualties! I find it nauseating when such political leaders claim to be concerned about human suffering, particularly in this case where Russia, if it did commit troops to the conflict would be doing so with the permission of the Syrian government and in coordination with the Syrian army, whereas the US (and Australia) are bombing Syria without the permission of the Syrian government and hence without any coordination with Syrian anti-ISIS operations going on in the region. And again, I don’t doubt that if it was the Gospel-writer, Mark, who was reporting on the conversation between these two great political power-figures, he would have reported simply that they were arguing about who is the greatest!
There was a time when I used to find this political power-play quite comical, but that was before I gained a first-hand acquaintance with so many people who have lost limbs and family members simply because they were on the wrong spot on the chessboard when these power players decided to make their moves! I think of the woman I met on my first arrival in Damascus, in the foyer of the hotel I stayed in – a frantic mother who was showing me a crumpled picture of her dead son who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. “They put a bomb in his pocket and killed him” she kept telling me. “Why did they kill him? They do it just because we are Shia!”
Of course I can’t tell her that it’s not really a religious issue but part of a greater show-down between nations – between Iran and Israel and Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the US, and about who is the greatest and who is going to be the greatest, but in the end that is exactly what it is about and that is all it is about, as that is always what it is all about!
It’s the original sin – the lust for power! It’s the promise of the snake to Eve – that if you eat of the tree ‘you will be like God, knowing good from evil’ (Genesis 3:5) – the author of Genesis recognising that from the very beginning knowledge is power!
It’s the lust for power that starts wars, destroys nations, turns people and religious groups against each other, and today continues to cause untold death and human suffering, with women and children – the poor and vulnerable – always experiencing the brunt of the violence. This lust for power is now so embedded in our culture and political structures and social systems that it has become a part of the very fabric of our existence, and yet it begins right here in the human heart with our fundamental human desire to be the greatest!
Jesus taught his disciples “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:25-27).
Even a cursory glance at the history of the church will tell you that we (the church) have never taken this command even remotely seriously. Throughout its history the church has been plagued by the same struggles for power and has displayed a capacity for violence and inhumanity that rivals any of its secular counterparts.
And this isn’t just a phenomenon of the Middle Ages. I’m currently reading an excellent book by Professor John Esposito on “The Future of Islam” which includes a tragic compilation of statements that have been made by contemporary church leaders, exhorting their flocks to defend the ‘Christian culture’ of the nations in which they live by going to war with Muslim peoples across the globe!
Another excellent book I read recently was “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” by Brian McLaren. While the title of his book is, of course, intended to be a play upon an old joke, McLaren begins by asking if we can imagine what it would be like if Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed really were to cross a road together? Do we really think for even one second that Jesus and Mohammed would get into a fist-fight before crossing, or that Jesus would insist on crossing the road ahead of the others?
We know full well that the violence in the name of Christ is like proposing a toast to tee totalling. The two are completely incompatible. Even so, we, the church, have never stopped trying to serve both masters, and the malaise goes all the way back to the first disciples who, while Jesus was trying to be straight with them about the path of suffering they were on were busy arguing about who is the greatest.
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37)
The fact that Jesus was able to produce a child at this point in itself speaks volumes! The Gospel writer, Mark, hadn’t mentioned that there was anybody with Jesus apart from the twelve but the sudden appearance of this child indicates that there were children with Jesus, and we suspect that there were always children around Jesus, along with their mothers, and along with any number of other people who were not considered important in their day.
I know that not everyone in our church is comfortable with the way in which noisy children so easily take over our worship services. If we were a wealthy parish we probably would have built a sound-proof crèche long ago. Even so, I suspect that Jesus’ own teaching sessions were continuously interrupted by the screams and/or laughter of little children, and I do think that there is something authentically Christian about the way we so often struggle at Communion to retain the solemnity of the Eucharist while a small child rolls around on the floor in front of the table!
I love still having a child in Primary School. I still enjoy assemblies at Dully Public and often think what a shame it is that we all have to grow up. I appreciate that there are some things that adults can do that children just can’t do, like balance cheque books. Even so, I watch the way the little ones hold hands together as they walk, so unselfconsciously, without any need to prove that they are smarter or prettier or greater than the child next to them and wonder why we have to lose all that.
It is curious, I think, that while we work so hard at our schools to turn our children into adults, when we come to the New Testament we never hear Jesus urging children to grow up and become adults. On the contrary, the only exhortation is for the process to go the other way around!
I began today by talking about my experience at my friend Jacob’s last fight. I’ve got my own title fight coming up in a couple of weeks too in Adelaide, and I’m conscious of the fact that I’ll be trying to prove then that I am the greatest too! Is there any place for that sort of thing for a disciple of Christ?
I don’t believe that the exasperation Jesus displays at our lust for power should be interpreted as an exhortation to mediocrity. Even so, I do appreciate that the ‘winners circle’ was a group that Jesus never joined. Instead He chose the Via Dolorosa:
“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.” (Mark 9:31)
This sermon was first preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on September 20th, 2015