Whenever I see the word “greatest” being associated with a person, I cannot help but think of the famous boxer Muhammad Ali who wasn’t shy to proclaim in February 1964 just before his world title fight against Sonny Liston that he is the ‘greatest ever’. There is no doubt that those of us who have seen him at the pinnacle of his career would surely acknowledge him as one of the finest individual sporting champions and as the greatest boxers of all time.
Our Gospel this Sunday is focussed on the argument the disciples had among themselves on the way to Capernaum about which of them was the greatest. Jesus had just finished instructing His disciples and He told them, “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put Him to death; and three days after He has been put to death He will rise again.” We must remember that the disciples still could not comprehend what Jesus said about His death and resurrection and His vision of being the Messiah. In their minds, Jesus was going to establish a new kingdom, the restoration of the Davidic throne, shortly, and the disciples wanted places of honour in this “kingdom”.
Once again Jesus is going to turn the expectations of His disciples into an opportunity to teach them about the true meaning of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. He will now go on to tell them that greatness in His kingdom comes not from power and authority but from service. That is why Jesus gives a concrete example of such humble service – that of a child who has no importance or rights in the society of that time.
Unlike in John’s Gospel where we have the account of the washing of feet and a teaching on humble service that followed, Mark does not record this event in his gospel. Nonetheless, using this squabble among the disciples, Jesus points out the path a disciple is called to – to be humble servants.
The reason why Jesus calls forward a child and teaches the Twelve that to receive a child in Jesus’ name is to receive both Jesus and the One who sent Him is because, in first-century Palestine, children were without status or power, possessing no legal rights. In what seemed to be an insignificant and simple action, Jesus is teaching His disciples and us that when we serve the least ones among us, we serve Jesus Himself.
We live in a world where awards, recognition, and rewards seem to accompany good deeds. There are those who do much silently and there are those who do things hoping to be seen by others. There is no doubt that some form of recognition does warm the soul even if it is some kind word especially from someone you least expected. Recognition and validation are not bad things but do we give humble service for the sake of validation?
As Jesus is now on His way to Jerusalem, He is gradually offering His disciples examples of service and sacrifice. Ultimately in Jerusalem, Jesus will offer Himself on the cross as the one who empties Himself for the sake of others – the greatest sacrifice of all time.
The Gospel today clearly reminds us that anyone who wants to be Jesus’ disciple and even be the greatest in the kingdom of God must find that greatness in the service of those in any form of need. We are at the crosswords in so many fronts in the life of the Church today and the greatest service that all of us can offer is love. Love is the greatest force that God has given us and it is a force that transforms lives.
If we want the Church to grow, what is not helpful is a judgmental and condemning attitude that we often show towards people. Let us remember that Jesus changed the world through love and acceptance of people and because of His love, acceptance and inclusion of everyone, their hearts were converted.
There are many who consider themselves to be the “least” in our eyes because of sin, irregular marriage, sexual orientation, divorced, or just not the typical Catholic we expect them to be. Because of our judgement, they dare not look at the face of Christ. Jesus today reminds “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Our “least” today may not be only the poor and the marginalised, but also those whom we have “labelled” as not worthy of God or His Church. Let our love for one another be acceptance, inclusion, compassion and tenderness and not condemnation – only love will make us the greatest.
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (19 Sept 2021)