>Wisdom is again our theme. The Hebrew scripture outlines the qualities of a wise woman. The psalm shows us the wisdom of choosing righteousness over wickedness and the letter of James, our epistolary reading, posits the argument for who is truly wise, and shows us that true wisdom is pure, peaceable, without partiality or hypocrisy – and then we have the Gospel, which illustrates what happens if we ignore wisdom and put our status in the world before the Word and what Christ calls us to do.
What is it about us that makes us want to be first?
Didn’t you want to be at the head of the line in Kindergarten? Called first for the softball team? Be the person the manager thinks of first to head up a new project? When I was a little girl, I wished my name was Abigail, or Anne, or Alice, so I could be at the head of the line, or the first person in the roll call. And I was always picked last for the softball game – the team captains would fight over who would have to take me. I’m sure you all have stories like that to share.
Being first, after all, is being noticed, gaining acceptance to whatever social circles we wish to belong, being important, the person everyone goes to, or thinks of. Being first is being successful.
No one likes to be last. The last are sometimes thought of as losers or the weakest. We all want to be number one, right?
The disciples were debating that very issue when Jesus asked what it was they argued about. They were shamed to silence, for despite the pressure to be alpha-whatever, they and we have been taught that that is immodest, pushy, or selfish to focus on getting ahead. Their silence is followed by a powerful statement:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.”
Who would be the last of all in the first century? That would be children. A child, being powerless and defenseless, relies on others for care. Children have no power or standing until they are old enough to work in the fields or shop. Acceptance of a child, then, is accepting Christ, and ultimately God, who sent him.
Today, by and large, we treat our children with respect, and care for them as Jesus would have us do. But there are other children of God. The poor, and by that I mean the people in our society who have incomes below the so-called poverty line, or no income at all, whether they are working or not, whether they have a place to live, or not. They are powerless and defenseless, and they must rely on others for care. They have no power or standing. Acceptance of someone who is without a voice, without standing, without power is once again accepting Jesus and the One who sent him.
Now, is Jesus telling us that to be first, to be a leader and to have authority is wrong? I don’t believe he is – but I do believe he is telling us to get our priorities straight. Putting the interests of others before our own. That is how one becomes a true leader. He is speaking to the body of Christ then and now – do you want to be great? Alrighty then! This is what you must do!
Every day we have opportunities to get at the back of the line, as it were, to be wise and act on Jesus’ advice to be last of all and servant of all. What might they be? Volunteer time to read to at-risk children, serve up a tasty meal for the hungry, the list is endless and if you put it to prayer and look around, you might find something suited to your gifts and time. It could be as simple as signing a petition to increase funding for after-school programs, or signing a letter to a legislator to encourage support of economic reforms that will find the money to feed the hungry, improve local economies, both here and abroad.
I’ll ask you what the disciples asked one another: who is truly the greatest? Obviously, the Lord – and Jesus, of course. But among us, who is truly the greatest? In the Kingdom of Heaven, our human idea of worth, of merit, is given a three-hundred and sixty degree spin. The greatest is the one who follows the example of Jesus and puts aside worldly concerns to become the servant of all – as vulnerable and as a little child or the poorest of the poor, and open to the transformative love and acceptance that is Jesus, our Lord.