True honour is to be found among those who take their turn at the back of a queue
The phrase ‘I get it’ is a pithy soundbite by which politicians mean: ‘I understand exactly how you feel and what you are trying to tell me and I am going to respond to you’. It’s fair to say the disciples didn’t ‘get it’ when Jesus taught them. In Mark 9, Jesus predicts his impending death for a second time but it was like a four year old being taught quantum mechanics and asking for a biscuit in response.
We often feel encouraged by the ignorance of the disciples; it makes us feel slightly better about ourselves. The flip side is that Jesus’ teaching failed to make an impact. I think that is a help to us all in our informal ways of sharing with others. If even Jesus struggled to get his point across at times, we shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t ‘get it’. Converting the way people think about an issue can take a long time, requiring patience and persistence.
There was clearly some distance still between Jesus and his disciples because they were afraid to question him about it, like the shy child in class who doesn’t understand the equation on the white board. But they were nevertheless already touched by his greatness and this is true of most people who live and work close to power. This can go one of two ways. Some remain unaffected by their connection to greatness and power; others are infected with a kind of delirium which means they start to see themselves in hallucinatory ways. The surest sign of this is when someone says to you: ‘do you know who I am?’ when you inconvenience them in any way.
Sadly the disciples fell into the latter camp. They had just been told that God’s Son would give himself up to crucifixion and their response on the walk home was to argue about who was the greatest among them. Mark, in the sparseness of his Gospel, makes them look astonishingly crass. The risk in reading this is one of complacency. None of us would be so childish to talk in such ways, which is true. But this is largely because we have found more adult ways of asserting our importance without naming it.
Here are three ways we do this. Some make sure the size and cost of their possessions are on display for others to admire. Big houses, fast cars, long yachts and smart planes are the unsubtle way of imposing your greatness in the era of the consumer; the discrete placement of designer labels around your body on a trip out is cleverer still. Both send out signals that you are important in a culture that values ownership.
Name dropping is a second way of asserting our importance. Personal connections are probably as important as degree classifications in getting on in the world. Who we know gives us access to places others cannot enter. The casual mention of an important name in conversation is a passing but powerful way of showing to others that we are important, influential, connected.
A third way of flexing our muscles is to boss people about in public if we have more power than they do. This is perhaps the one we see most often around us. If you want to get the measure of a person, watch how they treat a waitress in a restaurant or at a bar. It is easy to tell if someone believes in the equality of all people when you see this kind of interaction. There are temptations for each of us when power lands in our lap, however briefly.
These, and many other ways which we could name, are modern ways we act like those disciples. Their mistake was to see their ambition in binary terms. To fulfil your ambition you must get to the top ahead of other people, especially those you know. This has a very contemporary feel about it. There is little discussion about ambition today. It is treated as a given and is seen in terms of getting on ahead of those around you. Into this impoverished understanding, the Gospel has something enriching to say.
For Jesus, those who want to be first must be last of all and a servant of all. To the untrained ear, this sounds like the renunciation of all ambitious impulses, but this is not Jesus’ intention. How could it be, from a man with an ambition to save the world? His teaching shows a man with an earthy grasp of human instincts. It is not that ambition is wrong, but it has been wrongly defined. Ambition which is simply the desire to be top dog is going to leave the vast bulk of the human race unfulfilled. Ambition which turns the gifts God has given us into skills which can be harnessed to bless other people, enrich our community and glorify God is the kind Jesus is calling us to. This is the proper goal, and for some it may lead to large forms of leadership, but this should be an effect of the gifts they have been given rather than their personal aim. The call to seek first the kingdom of God and find all these things added to you rings as true. Our ambition should be to please God; the rest will follow one way or another. And he will see to that.
Britain has a distinguished history of public service which has roots in the Christian tradition; the idea that a person consciously puts their gifts to the common good. As Christian practice and memory recedes from private life, the public sphere shows the effects of this. This can be over-stated – there probably never was a golden age of selfless public service – but the assumption that it’s all about you rather than all about others is a hallmark of today’s ambition.
The greatness Jesus is searching for is undemonstrative, self-effacing and unobtrusive. Muhammad Ali was boxing’s biggest showman who turned the sport into theatre with his refrain: ‘I am the greatest’. It was a mix of the cocky and the calculating, designed to get under the skin of his opponents. Muhammad Ali need never have said those words; he was the greatest in his field and everyone knew it. Actions always speak louder than words and they talk to others more than anything we might say. True greatness is to be found among those who take their turn at the back of the queue.
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