Reflection on This Week’s Readings

The Greatest

In today’s gospel from Mark, the disciples have just witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration atop the high mountain. Riding high on this experience, they are now traveling with him through the countryside, processing what they have seen, contrasting it with the story of crucifixion and death Jesus keeps hinting at. They begin to argue about which of them is the greatest—who will be given the highest honors for hanging out with Jesus? But Jesus stops them in their tracks. It isn’t about the highest honors, or about who shines most brightly: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Jesus’ words to the disciples and to us are a reminder that God flips upside-down the way the world judges greatness. As Christians, most of us know this almost instinctively. We talk about avoiding “works righteousness” and rejecting the need to earn our salvation or prove our faith. And yet, even within the “servant of all” framework, we too often compete with one another to be the greatest servant. We hold ourselves up as examples of charity and justice, patting ourselves on the back for our works of service, hoping that the world—and God—will be impressed. Even when we know that this isn’t how God works, we still get sucked into the ways of the world.

But Jesus’ statement to the disciples is not just about them: it is also about himself. It is a reminder that Jesus’ greatness is precisely because on the cross, he has become “last of all and servant of all.” Our own efforts at service and humility will always pale in comparison to the Son of God. To be sure, we are called to love and serve our neighbors; but we are called to trust Jesus, “last of all and servant of all,” for our salvation. This is good news, for now our competitions and attempts to impress are no more. We simply receive from the Lord and pass it along.

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READINGS FOR THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Lectionary 25, Year B
We continue through the autumn’s standard Sundays and are now at the center, that is, the apex, of Mark’s gospel. Our failure to live as servants draws us to holy communion for forgiveness and sustenance.
Each Sunday we stand before the passion of Jesus Christ, yet we are no better than the original disciples in embodying the countercultural worldview that the crucifixion inaugurated. We must take care not to sentimentalize Mark’s reference to a little child, who in antiquity was more likely to be discarded than pampered. Tying Mark to Jeremiah 11 illumines this excerpt by reminding us that Jesus is like the vulnerable child whom we welcome into our midst through the word and the meal.
This passage, in which the prophet boldly speaks an unpopular word, is linked with today’s gospel reading to focus on Jesus as the unpopular speaker who was destroyed. However, we gather on Sunday, the day of the resurrection, because Jesus’ name is most certainly remembered among us.
This Sunday the second reading fits well with the gospel. James decries selfish ambition and calls on the community to live in wisdom, and in Mark Jesus corrects the selfish ambition of the disciples and gathers them around himself, who is servant of all and the Wisdom of God.
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