Jesus and His disciples (HINT: that’s Gospel code for US) go on a journey. That is how our Gospel begins today: “Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee.” On the way Jesus teaches His disciples, giving them the second prediction of His suffering, Passion and Resurrection in St. Mark’s Gospel. (Last week we heard the first prediction of the Passion in St. Mark’s Gospel.)
Once they get to their destination, Jesus asks the disciples a simple but difficult question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” I can imagine the scene: the disciples all standing around, shuffling their feet, hemming and hawing, glancing guiltily at one another, not saying anything.
The Gospel says they were silent because they had been “discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.” Oh, you got to love the Apostles. Jesus is predicting His Passion and death, and they are preoccupied with who is the greatest. Talk about clueless! Talk about oblivious! This is an example of exactly what St. James in our second reading today addresses: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.”
So knowing what was going on on-the-way Jesus sits down. He doesn’t sit down because He was tired from walking, He sits down because in the ancient world that is the position of the teacher. This is why the Bishop’s chair, his “cathedra”, kept in the cathedral, is important, because it represents his teaching authority. Jesus sits down because He is now going to deliver an important teaching. He calls the Twelve to Himself and gives this solemn teaching: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Greatness, being first, is about SERVICE. Any greatness that we humans can achieve is really less than insignificant compared to the greatness of God. God is NOT impressed with our human strength, wealth, brilliance or greatness. But, Jesus says, God is impressed with service. Because that is what God does.
So to make the point Jesus takes a child, places the child in the midst of the Apostles, places His arms around the child and says: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
What does it mean to “receive” a child? Other translations (NRSV) have “welcome” a child. What is this welcome or reception all about?
We need to understand that a child in that culture had no rights. Children were literally property. They could be sold or given away by the father. The child had no rights. Receiving or welcoming a child therefore means welcoming the lowliest and most vulnerable. Jesus is teaching us to have a concern - not for the great and the mighty - but for the lowly. In welcoming those of no account, we welcome Jesus, and in so doing we welcome God. And to receive God is to receive the source of all life. It all depends on service. Because service is what God does.
That is different than our world. In the ancient Roman world when a child was born the mother would place the newborn at the feet of the father. The father had two options. If the child was crippled or deformed, or he already had too many mouths to feed, or he wanted a boy and this was a girl, or for any other reason he could turn away and the child would be left outside to die. This was the Roman way of dealing with a problem pregnancy. In some ways we have not come very far. We just make the decision to receive the child or not before the birth. We still, like the Romans, must choose to receive the child. The Latin word used for this reception of the newborn is “suscipio” . It means to raise up, to maintain, to support, to accept, to receive.
And this is what Jesus does in the Gospel. He takes the child in his arms. He welcomes or receives the child. In Latin the word used for Jesus’ action is sucipio.
This is what God does. In “Psalm 54” the word sucipio appears again, in “The Lord upholds my life”, which we just sang as our Responsorial Psalm. God accepts and welcomes and lifts up us. This is what God does for us. God receives us. God serves us.
So Jesus is teaching the disciples and us: if you want to be greatest, if you want to be first, if you want to be like God, then do what God does: God welcomes, receives, upholds, suscipio, the lowly and those of no account. God serves.
Our Gospel today begins with a journey. We too are on a journey like those earliest disciples, only not through Galilee, but rather the journey of life.
When we come to the end of life, and reach our destination, I think the Lord Jesus will still be there asking the same question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” On your journey of life? What pre-occupied you? What were you invested in during your life?
May our answer be “SERVICE”.