Today is Mother’s Day. That venerable day when we honor those women who have poured out their life for their children. As we grow up we begin to catch a glimpse of just what our mothers did for us, and as we have children of our own, it comes into sharp focus just how much many of these women gave up in order to love us and lead us. There were the careers given up so that they could be at home when we got out of school, or even to actually school us. And what about the late nights as we cried as infants, or the middle of the night nursing runs as we had the flu and were as sick as a dog. There were the countless times they held us and let us cry, or talk. And that says nothing about all the laundry they washed, the dishes they washed and the meals they prepared. Did you know that if your mom cooked 3 meals a day for 18 years that is 19,710 meals she cooked for you? Multiply that by the number of kids in the family and add in those meals for dad and you have quite a culinary sacrifice. It is no wonder so many moms are tired in our world, for a mom is the image of a servant. They are selfless, sacrificial and when they are disciples of Jesus, they are also images worthy of emulating.
I say all of that as we step into our passage today a passage, which begins with the disciples engaged in a discussion about greatness. Unfortunately the NIV and many other translations give us the impression that the disciples were arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest. The Greek text doesn’t say that. The KJV and the NASB get the closest to a literal rendering of the text when they say, “What were you discussing on the way?” They were silent among themselves, for they were discussing who is the greatest (Mark 9:33-34).
That may be just a nit picky point but it is worth considering. What if the disciples were merely talking about greatness in general? Might they have been saying things like Pharisees are greater than Sadducees or Herodians are greater than freedom fighters? They may have even said something like “Men are definitely greater than women. Our prayers tells us that. Each morning we recite, “thank God that I am not a gentile, a woman, or a slave” (Tosefta Berakhot 6:18). There is no doubt in my mind that a Jewish man in the time of Jesus wouldn’t have even placed women and children on the scale of greatness.
We read the disciples’ question and are surprised that people would walk around and talk about this so openly. But some of our best scholars have told us that the entire culture of the day was consumed with thoughts of position and respect, who should be honored and how much (Lane 339n60). That is why stories like Jesus told about it being better to take a low seat in a banquet and be moved up than to take a high seat and be moved down made sense to the people. They lived each day comparing themselves to others, trying to figure out where they fit in the pecking order.
And yet, even in a culture consumed with such discussions, when Jesus asked them about the conversation, they were quiet. They knew that something was inherently wrong in the underlying premise. They had been around Jesus enough and had seen him teach and heal. They knew that there wasn’t anything in this man that begged or exercising authority or taking honor on himself. And so they were confronted with a life of pride that tries to climb a social ladder of importance.
Oh how much are we like the disciples? Don’t we struggle with feelings of superiority? Don’t we feel things are beneath us? That is the work of the paid janitor or the maintenance man or whomever. Do we look at others and think, “Man they have a screwed up life, if they would just get things together like me, then they could become something”? Are we inconvenienced when people impinge on our plans and our time, but we just apologize or blow it off when we impinge on their plans and their time? Aren’t these all manifestations of the same root problem of pride that the disciples were struggling with as they were trying to define greatness and worth?
You see, pride and inflated egos are everywhere in our world. We see them on TV; we hear them on the radio; we live with them in the office and we sleep with them at night. We are the root of the problem. We are the ones infatuated with ourselves and what we deserve. We are the disciples; we are the ones who want to be the greatest in the kingdom of God, sitting on the right and the left of Jesus.
So what antidote does Jesus prescribe for the prideful heart? Most of us would naturally say, humility, but humility is a character quality and those take time to develop based upon actions that a person engages in and on the thoughts that they think about. Humility isn’t the prescription for pride, servanthood is.
Jesus is telling his disciples that the solution to their self-focused living is an other-focused life. They are to live their life for the benefit of others. We read Jesus’ words, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35), and think that this is a road map to success. We think, “I want to be great. I want to be first. So this is how I get what I desire.” But isn’t that the very thing that Jesus is chiding his disciples for. It isn’t about them. It is about others. I think Jesus is trying to teach his disciples a hard and stark lesson, that if their desire is to be first, the punishment is to be last.
Let me put it this way. In kindergarten, we used to line up to go to lunch, or to do fun things. Does anyone remember, or have you ever witnessed that child who incessantly wants to be in the lead. No one else can get to the front because they are always the first there and they are very protective of their position. The same could be said of families or sports teams, or nearly anything else. So, what does the wise teacher or parent or coach do? Don’t they eventually pull that child out of the lead and send them to the back to learn a lesson. They need to be last. They need to take concrete actions to realize the world doesn’t revolve around them.
But Jesus takes it a step further. If your struggle is with pride and an inflated sense of worth, or entitlement, then you must go to the back of the line and start serving others. The word that Jesus uses when he prescribes being a servant is the word diakonos. That is right; it is the word we translate elsewhere in the NT as deacon. If you have a pride problem you need to be a deacon.
Obviously, I am not advocating filling our council with people with pride problems. The letters to Timothy and Titus would preclude that in a variety of ways as the qualities of elders and deacons are discussed. But what exactly is it that deacons are to do? If we turn to Acts 6 we find the story of the choosing of the first 6 deacons. Chapter 6 begins this way, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). The deacons were chosen to serve those who were being forgotten and ignored. Their special calling was to look for and serve the unimportant and the outcast. They were to keep in the forefront of their minds and life the needs of other people. That is quite an antidote to pride is it not? These deacons were to seek the welfare of the body of Christ – they were to be other focused.
How can we practically enter into a life of servanthood, a life focused on the welfare of others? Jesus gives us our first hint with the child he draws into their midst and holds him in his arms. Literally and in the context of this discussion of pride and position, the disciples are being called to focus their life on the children. To a Jewish male that would be a huge re-orientation of life. Children were called to serve him. His children would honor and respect him by doing as they were told, by meeting his needs and by being his extra set of hands and feet. They would be excluded from the real important decisions of life and wouldn’t be consulted about their needs. But Jesus is flipping that around, saying, pay attention to their needs. Welcome them in and listen to them and love them in the same way you would welcome me into your home and serve me as your rabbi. Jesus is calling them to practice a life of inconvenience for the most inconsequential among them – the child.
Is that calling still relevant? Certainly, parenthood is one of the best ways to challenge the selfish life of an adult. In fact, I would go so far as to state the truth of parenthood this way. If you are struggling with pride and selfishness, then you are being called to raise a large family. If you are struggling with a sense of entitlement and due, then welcome the gift of children from God. You need more children since they are God’s way of drawing you out of your small, insular world and forcing you to see the needs of others. If I can be so forward, too much of our conversation in America about family size is colored by selfishness. We talk about children as financial burden, or hindrances to really enjoying all the travel we want to do. We limit our family size so that we can get back to work sooner as women, or so we can still do all that stuff we want to do as men. But isn’t that proof enough that we need to have larger families to fight this selfishness and all consuming egotism?
Mothers and Fathers, don’t short change the greatest means God has given you to draw out the character of Christ in your life – a large family. And while I certainly believe that large families are a Scriptural mandate, there are other things we can do that can aid in living a life of serving others, even if they are less effective. We can offer hospitality to the stranger, we can allow ourselves to be inconvenienced by people, we can pour our life out for our persecuted brothers and sisters by praying for them, and supporting them. We can take an active role in caring for the widow and the orphan. And how about this for my aging congregants – why not live with your children or with another older couple? Wouldn’t that draw out many of the same benefits that having a large family does in challenging our self-focused lives? As we live with others, we are forced to take their opinions into consideration and to shape our lives to live in peace. Don’t dismiss the thought so quickly; to do so is proof enough that pride still rules your life. Might it be God’s call on your life to refine you into the image of Christ?
But all of this brings me back to one pressing and determinative question – Will any of us ever become servant hearted enough to truly break our prideful hearts? I would submit that there is not one person alive who could ever defeat their self-focused aggrandizement. I would submit that none of us really desires and yearns to watch out for our neighbors’ best interest especially if it means that our best interest will be impaired. And as hard as it is to say, that goes even for our wonderful mothers who live one of the most selfless lives possible, yet I believe even they would agree that selfishness and pride creeps into their hearts.
So what are we to do? What is our only hope? Christ alone is our hope. He is our servant. He comes to serve a humanity broken down by selfishness and sin. He comes caring for our deepest need, to be redeemed from the curse of the law and he redeems us by giving him life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The law demands that every sin be atoned for with blood (Lev 17:11), and that includes the sin of pride which is really a failure to love my neighbor, but Hebrews is very clear that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb 10:4). And so humanity lives in bondage to sin and death until Christ redeems a person.
He alone is the hope of every mother, and father, brother and sister, for he can atone for the prideful soul and restore one to a proper way of life. Will you look to the only servant humanity has ever had?
For he paid the ransom to rescue you and me from our sinful hearts: He paid the price for the release of the prisoners. His life was the price that secures the release of people from not only pride, but every other sin as well as the consequence of the sin – death and separation from God. His life redeems those who he purchases from every tribe, language, people and nation. The Qumran scrolls, which were popular among the Essenes at the time of Jesus, have shown that the term “the many” was a technical term for referring to the elect of God (Lane 384). Therefore Jesus is the servant of the elect throughout history, time and space rescuing from all that impedes a truly cruciform life. And he makes that possible by living the only life that is truly sacrificial and servant oriented. Will you follow the servant who cries out Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me in to a life of service to God and man?
- Mother’s – images of servanthood
- Do you have a pride issue? (Mark 9:33-34)
- Antidote: Servanthood (Mark 9:35)
- Deacons-ministers-servants (Acts 6:1)
- How can we live a life of service?
- Christ alone is our only Hope, our Servant (Mark 10:45; Lev 17:11; Heb. 10:4)