Somewhere between 4th grade and 7th grade, it was a common pastime for girls in my school to rank their friends. “Tiffany is my first best friend. Holly is my second best friend. You are my third best friend.” Unless you were number one, it was demoralizing and humiliating, but you also knew your place in the pecking order was always tenuous. Any move by you or those in your circle could shift you up or down. You could get demoted by another girl extending an invitation to her birthday party at the skate center or a sleep-over at a house with an above-ground swimming pool or something as seemingly small as the gift of a Cindy Lauper cassette tape or a Duran Duran slap bracelet. (It was the 80’s, so these were a tween girl’s currency.)
As cut-throat and cruel as this may sound, it’s not a new idea. For all time, we humans have wanted to know where we fit as we’ve worried about the prominent placement of our seat at the table. Whether we like to admit it or not, we desire confirmation of our significance, and this often comes at the detriment of those around us.
Jesus’ twelve best friends were no different. As He was traveling around the area, preaching and healing, his disciples were arguing over which of them was the greatest. When we read Mark’s account of the story, Jesus asks them what they were quarrelling about (even though he knows the thoughts in their heads let alone the words they’re saying to each other as they walk down the road), but “they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” They knew what they were talking about was childish, and they were embarrassed to tell Him.
Of course, Jesus used that moment to teach them (and through His Word, us) a valuable lesson. He told them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Then Jesus saw a little child standing nearby which he lifted in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
You would think that the Disciples had been adequately upbraided by Jesus once he held an actual child to illustrate to them how they were acting like babies, but they didn’t fully absorb the lesson. Later, we see them reclining at the last supper they would eat with Jesus. He’s just dropped a bombshell, saying that one of them would betray him and His death was just around the corner, and they’re arguing about their status again.
Jesus shuts down the bickering by telling them that the order is different in His kingdom than in the kingdoms you find in the world. He tells them that it’s not about being the boss. Instead, it’s about being the servant.
I heard a preacher tell his congregation about an assignment for a discipleship course. He said that for a week, the person taking the course couldn’t brag about himself or defend himself when being criticized. He also couldn’t gossip or speak negatively about anyone else. He explained that the assignment was nearly impossible. He became aware of all the times he was concerned with his position, his seat at the table. He had to fight the urge to inflate his own ego or puncture the self-worth of others.
Jesus shows us that choosing to live the life of a servant isn’t an act of weakness, but one of extreme strength. To continually die to ourselves goes against the selfish nature we were born with and requires willpower and self-control. Most likely you won’t read words like humble or submissive or foot-washer in a political campaign ad or in the job description for a CEO or in a post-game interview with a professional athlete, but Jesus provides the best example of how to be the greatest.