Being last of all and servant of all
Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Leonard Bernstein, composer of the music for West Side Story and other musicals, will perhaps be best remembered as a conductor of international renown. He worked with many famous orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. On one occasion he was asked what he thought was the most difficult instrument to play. “Second fiddle,” the great man responded. “I can get plenty of first violinists, but I have a hard time getting someone to play second fiddle. Yet if no one plays second fiddle, we have no harmony.”
For most of us, our natural instincts urge us to want to play “first fiddle” – to do something that commands the maximum prestige, status and earning capacity. Who in their right mind would want to come second in any contest or, even worse, come last?
To the disciples, Jesus was the true Messiah who would rid them of the hated Roman rule and occupation, and the sooner the better. In the meantime, why did they need to wrestle with Jesus’ conundrum about the betrayal of the Son of Man, and death and resurrection after three days? Some of the disciples had just seen Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain so there was no doubt in their minds that he was the genuine article; no doubt that a new regime was about to be established. They assumed that their charismatic leader would soon become king and would need a cabinet of ministers to run the country. There would be all sorts of important jobs to be handed out. Listening to Jesus saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” must have caused some scratching of heads, even disbelief. What was that all about?
The “first shall be last” teaching has a topsy-turvy kind of logic and is certainly not easy, either to understand or to implement. In fact, as the disciples said on another occasion, “This teaching is difficult” (John 6:60). But Jesus clearly meant what he said. Most importantly, his example of the little child, symbolic of those whom society regards as at the bottom of the heap, underlined how seriously he meant the words. “Disciples of mine,” Jesus was saying, “read my lips. Believe me, I do mean it. Just do it!”
How should we interpret the word “servant” in Jesus’ statement? Is it just about humility? That’s not an easy word, humility. As someone once quipped, if we are all to be clothed in humility, many of us would be scantily clad. Are we really to make ourselves nothing, taking the very nature of a servant and humbly reckoning others better than ourselves? If so, what if people turn out not to be better than us and nothing is achieved? Or are we to strive to be successful, at the same time trying to implement some sort of servant leadership model, with the motivation to serve more dominant than the urge to lead? These questions do have answers in Jesus’ parables, although we may find the message confusing. For example, the good Samaritan set aside his own agenda and put his own interests last, and put the needs of the injured man first. “Go and do likewise,” we are told. In contrast, in the parable of the talents, the able and industrious man who made the most of his opportunities came first and was put in charge of many things, just as the disciples wanted to be put in charge of many things. The timid, humble man who made the least of his opportunities came last and even the little he had was taken from him.
So carrying out the “first-last” command in Jesus’ teaching is not necessarily straightforward. Perhaps, rather than focusing on our place in the pecking order, or becoming distracted by which fiddle we are playing, we would do well to heed the wisdom of James in today’s second reading, as he urges his readers to be guided by “wisdom from above”, which “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”.
May God the Holy Spirit dwell within you and inspire your every action and thought.