My 4th grader is learning how to write a summary. Leafing through his ELA (English Language Arts) folder, I came across a worksheet which directed students to summarize a story they had read together in class. Reading what my son had written, I noticed that almost every sentence began with the word “then”, as if the story was just a series of actions that hinged on each other like the blocks of a Jacob’s Ladder, moving the plot inevitably to its finale. I think that Mark’s gospel is somewhat like this; Jesus and the disciples always at the crest of a forceful wave pushed onward by a current of urgency. Skimming Mark’s gospel, you find a repetition of “then,” “immediately,” crossings, and returns.
The gospel reading for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 10:46-54, brings Jesus nearly full circle in the journey of his public ministry. Jesus and the disciples are passing through Jericho on the way up to Jerusalem, and he and the disciples have a sense of what awaits. There’s been a sense of uncertainty, perhaps even dread, building in the disciples on this journey to Jerusalem. This uneasy feeling finds outlet in some confounding arguments about greatness. Two questions frame this extended dialogue/argument between the disciples and Jesus: 1) who is the greatest?, and 2) what do you want me to do for you?
Who is the greatest? Prior to the story of Bartimaeus, the disciples have been obsessed with this question. Who is the greatest? – meaning who among the 12 is the greatest. Now, to me, this kind of argument about who is greatest is boastful and arrogant. But I think that what is underneath this question is a turbulent anxiety about approaching Jerusalem and fear about how it will unfold. After all, Jesus has predicted his betrayal, murder, and resurrection…and the prospect of it all is frightening. So the disciples default to an argument about the future – future leadership, the future kingdom, the glory that awaits them.
I can totally relate to the disciples’ question. For example, on the first day of class when a professor would distribute the course syllabus, I was all about figuring out the answer to this one question: what do I have to do to get an A? My focus and energies in those first few weeks were all directed toward the end goal: a good grade. This is not a bad thing, but it does slightly miss the point of the educative journey and the joy of learning. Here’s another example. While on mission trips with high schoolers, typical questions I get asked – especially during the first couple of days of the mission – go something like this: “what will we be doing tomorrow?”, “can I switch jobs?” and “what day are we leaving?” These are reasonable questions and they come up, I have noticed, when expectations are not meeting reality. I’ve learned to respond with a gentle reminder: participation not anticipation. One goal of going on a mission trip is to live in the moment, even when that moment is boring or overwhelming. When our focus is on completing a task and moving on, or reward, we can lose sight of our purpose.
Jesus implies something similar to “participation not anticipation” to the disciples. As any good teacher would, Jesus finds a teachable moment to engage his disciples in an experiential lesson. When the disciples, in their anxiety about their present moment, get ahead of themselves and bicker about position and rank, Jesus tells them a parable: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35b) In a kind of visual parable, Jesus then takes a small child; he is like a mother, cradling a child in his arms and, in doing so, placing that child at the very center.
There is no “greatest” or “best” that awaits us in some far off tomorrow; the Reign of God is not a hierarchy – it’s the very opposite. When James and John can’t let go of the question about greatness, asking Jesus to grant them a place at his right and his left in his glory, Jesus drills down on where, exactly, the disciples should position themselves. Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” If we look at the Greek, we find that the word translated as servant is diakonos – deacon – and the word for slave is doulos. Our English word “doula” traces its origins back to doulos, and the meanings are similar, for the Greek doulos, like our modern doulas, are people who are devoted to the well-being, nurture, and care of another, putting someone else’s interests above one’s own interests.
When Jesus places a child at the center, the focus turns away from an abstract argument, and towards a person. And this person, this child, not Jesus’ own child, but born under systematic oppression and persecution, and living in an occupied, overpoliced land, is wholly dependent on others for full human flourishing. If our time is resonant with Jesus’ time it is in the reality that suffering and inequality exist, yet the impact on children is often hidden. Children lack standing in most societies and rely on adults to advocate for them. Children in poverty face hunger, inadequate housing, and deficits in early childhood development; children are facing the terror of gun violence in school, home, and neighborhood; and hundreds of children still face the heartbreak of separation from family with whom they sought safety in our country—these and countless other children find themselves in despairing acceptance of a seemingly limited future. Our time, like Jesus’ time, is contentious. Many things vie for our attention. Because of our faith in hope, we must remain present to the suffering and become advocates. Jesus tells us that the Reign of God is for the deacons and the doulas who serve the last, the least, and the left behind standing with and for all God’s children who suffer, embodying God’s love and will for justice.
But, we have yet another aspect of today’s gospel to consider. Earlier, I identified two questions that frame this particular moment in Mark’s gospel, this moment in time just before Jesus enters Jerusalem. The first question we considered, “who is the greatest?”, is put to Jesus by the disciples. The second question brings the arc of this story to an end -- the kind of end that is a new beginning. Significantly, this moment, takes place in Jericho, town of historical and spiritual significance. And the question is this, “what do you want me to do for you?” Actually, in Chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel, we hear two slightly different phrasings of this question. The first time we hear it, it is more of a statement. James and John say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” These disciples are being so impertinent! But, Jesus doesn’t seem particularly put out by the request and is at least willing to hear what they have to say. Jesus answers James’ and John’s with more questions about what they are willing to do, what sacrifice they are willing to make in reaching for greatness. Yet, even when they unhesitatingly declare their willingness and ability, Jesus distances himself from the disciples. He gives their illusions of grandeur no satisfaction.
Let us heed Jesus’ vision and call to be doulas laboring with God for a world of humility, love, justice, and mercy. Let our hearts and minds be attuned to the needs of all God’s children, and let us seek to form bonds of care, concern, and empathy with those on the margins.