Who wants to be first? It depends on what you might be first for, does it not? First in line for lunch, first for tickets to the concert, first for donuts, count me in! First in line for the dentist, first to take an examination, I’ll take a pass.
How little people have changed, because as we’ve just learnt from the readings, the disciples of Jesus and the Christians of the first century weren’t any better than we are today. How come?
No-one will deny that conflicts, disputes and insults; not to mention envy, that spiritual disease that stems from our selfish ambition, permeate our daily life.
In today’s Gospel an argument begins between Jesus’ disciples as to who was the greatest. To my mind this is most illuminating.
But look at the context.
Jesus instructs his disciples on what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem during the days of his passion and resurrection. He says something of paramount importance: ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days later, he will rise again’: isn’t this a fundamental statement of our Christian faith?
This is not the first time the disciples heard from Jesus what was going to happen. Previously, as we heard last Sunday, the chief of the apostles, Peter, rebuked Jesus for saying these things and Jesus gave a stunning reply: ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things’. And he explains to all the disciples: ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (…) Because the one who loses their life for my sake, will save it’.
It couldn’t be any clearer. But, the disciples, who were seemingly so close to Jesus, understood very little, if anything. When Jesus repeats this most crucial assertion about his death and resurrection, they remained ignorant. Ignorance is the issue here. Jesus’ closest disciples couldn’t understand what their teacher was talking about.
But what is even worse, they are afraid to ask. They are scared. Why? Because their minds are still set on purely human things and what they hear is too much for them? Or perhaps they don’t want to come across as ignorant in front of someone they truly admire? Instead they start to fight among themselves. Jesus tells them the most astonishing truths about himself and what do the disciples do? In their total ignorance they argue as to who is the greatest.
The desire for knowledge of God is an important task for us today; not any kind of un-knowing, but striving for knowledge of the divine things is necessary. As disciples of Jesus we need to seek answers to the questions of our faith, particularly the most difficult ones. It is for us to be inquiring disciples of Jesus.
The great St. Augustine famously said: ‘We cannot love God if we don’t know Him’. If we truly love him, and I am sure that’s the case for everyone here, we’ll do our best to get this knowledge. By so doing we are well on our way to understanding Jesus’ words, because our minds are set firmly on the things of God and not on human things.
Do you know what will happen then? When all this ignorance is gone and knowledge arrives: envy, self-ambition, conflicts, disputes and insults will simply vanish. Because it won’t be ‘us’ acting anymore, but Jesus in his spiritual power acting in us and through us. And so we become his true disciples, those who love one another. Who wants to be first? There is only one who truly deserves to be first in our lives and that’s God!