Click here for the Sunday Readings
For Reflection: The context of today’s Gospel
One of the distinct aspects of Mark’s Gospel is the fact that the disciples are portrayed as all too human. Despite being in the physical presence of Jesus, they frequently fail either to understand what he is saying or trust in the wisdom of his actions. Early on in Jesus’ ministry, when the disciples are with Jesus, and a violent storm threatens to capsize their boat, they come to him, urgently and demand, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:35-41) Jesus gets up, rebukes the wind, and issues an order to the sea: “Quiet! Be still!”
Jesus then turns to his companions and asks, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” The Gospel author informs us that the disciples turned to one another in awe and asked, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
Now by this point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus has already cured numerous people in the presence of these same disciples. They have witnessed him cast out demons and heal lepers. They have listened as he claimed for himself the authority to forgive sins - something only God can do - and heeded his admonitions that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. They’ve given up their entire livelihoods as fishermen, tax collectors, and stoneworkers; they’ve left behind their families and friends, who must have wanted to know, “Who is this guy you’re abandoning us to go follow?” And yet,even after all of this, they seem unable to answer this most basic question! Who IS this person Jesus? And if you don’t know who he is... why would you relinquish all that to follow him?
In other passages of Mark, the disciples continue to struggle with Jesus’ instructions. In the famous scene known to us as the feeding of the five thousand, they go to Jesus and tell him to dismiss the crowds, for it is late, and they are hungry. When Jesus tells them to give the people something to eat, the disciples sarcastically retort, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?”
Further along in the Gospel, while walking to Capernum, the disciples are arguing over who among them is the greatest. One can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes overhearing this conversation. These persons who are with him twenty four hours a day, who have been witnessing all that he has done and listening to everything he has said, are still stuck on thinking of things in selfish, ignorant, and worldly terms like prestige, acclaim, and importance. And in that most poignant moment of Scripture, when Jesus undergoes utter agony in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he dies, he returns to find that the disciples he has asked to sit up with him have fallen asleep. “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” he asks. Exasperated, yet full of love and mercy, he assess, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Returning an hour later, Mark tells us, “He returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open and did not know what to answer him. He returned a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?'"
If ever there was evidence that Jesus recruited ordinary individuals, flawed and fallible like ourselves, to be the foundation upon which he built his Church, it is supplied in the Gospel of Mark. These were no impeccable pillars of faithfulness nor paragons of heroic virtue in the manner that we describe superheroes and saints. Rather, they were persons like us, who wanted very badly to be part of Jesus’ ministry, but who struggled at times to live it out.
What does this have to do with us?
In a word, everything. Today’s Gospel reminds us that even those of us who possess great faith and who sacrifice an enormous amount in order to follow Jesus... still fail to get it much of the time. Like the first disciples arguing over who was the greatest, or asking Jesus to give them the seat of honor in the Kingdom of Heaven, we, too, find ourselves lapsing into familiar habits of sin, selfishness, and superficial concerns.
Have we ever looked at someone who was selected to be a leader and thought, “Why should s/he have been chosen, instead of me?” Have we ever watched a friend receive an award or scholarship, and been envious that we were not selected instead? Do we ever begrudge the person picked to be the captain of a team, the head of an organization, or the speaker at a function? Do we continue to assess our sense of importance and self-worth on the terms of the world? Or do we evaluate our selves and those around us using the metric laid out for us in today’s Gospel?
Positions of prestige and honor were much the same in Jesus’ day as they are in our own. The most important people sat closest to the guest of honor. The favored individuals were chosen for what seemed like the most significant tasks. The ones who performed most impressively were rewarded most lavishly.
And yet, Jesus turns such standards on their head by articulating a vision of leadership that is characterized by service and humility. If we wish to be great, we will make ourselves the servant of all, the least acclaimed in the eyes of the world. Time and again, Jesus points to those in the society who would have been reviled, ignored, or marginalized, and he holds them up as exemplars of who will enter the Kingdom. If we were updating Jesus’ words to our modern American setting, we can imagine Jesus looking around the room at a fancy political dinner or a posh Hollywood gala, and singling out the janitors, the florists, the backstage lighting operators and unseen sound technicians, as being those who were the “greatest” in the room, over and above the A-list of celebrities or politicians.
We see Jesus provide precisely this sort of witness when he gets down on his hands and knees, washing the feet of his disciples. The task was even less glamorous back then, when people walked for miles amid dusty roads and animal dung, wearing open-toed sandals. It would be like Jesus showing up to a function at the parish hall and immediately setting about taking out the trash, cleaning the toilets, and mopping the floor. We would view it as beneath him, and yet he would turn to us and say that it is precisely this sort of service that is entailed if we wish to be his disciple.
We get very caught up in the accolades and measurements of secular society. GPAs, awards, scholarships, trophies, Instagram likes, and all manner of social media affirmation. When we change our profile picture, many of us check back incessantly in search of external validation from friends and families that we are attractive, well-liked, and important.
Jesus offers us a wholly different tool for assessing our self-worth and public standing. Do we serve others? Do we orient our lives in a manner that reflects the command to love one another with the self-sacrificing love Jesus shows us? Do we forgive people who hurt us? Do we feed those who are hungry and clothe those who are naked? Do we sow peace? The comforting reality is that the very first disciples struggled with each of these issues, and Jesus chose them anyway. We, too, struggle, and Jesus calls us to be disciples as well.
Questions for Reflection
1.) What aspects of the Gospel do you struggle to live out? How do you think you could find support from the community of faith? How could you support others?
2.) What does living a life of service look like for you?
3.) Which aspects of the world’s standards - awards, honors, leadership positions - do you find yourself wanting? How does your faith interact with these desires?