There’s something refreshingly honest and engaging in the behavior of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel excerpt we just heard. They certainly were not being subtle concerning their ambitions or their self-image. They were arguing, we are told, over who was the most important one among them in the mission plan that Jesus was revealing to them. You can just hear one of them telling another about a compliment that Jesus had paid him. Or another of them listing his strengths and his various life experiences as reasons that he should be regarded as the most valuable to Jesus. They were acting and talking almost like a bunch of kids fighting about who’s the best at this or that sport or who’s the strongest or the smartest.
Not everyone is that frank or open; many of us, instead, are much more discreet – even crafty – in letting others know how superior we regard ourselves to be. We do it by insinuation, by gesture, by inflexion. We make the point so smoothly, that our boastful bid for recognition can even go unnoticed by some of our hearers – who may leave us thinking how humble we are.
I think this is just another symptom of our incomplete adjustment, our inability to lose ourselves in God’s love. We can go from the peaceful detachment of meditation, when we couldn’t care less about what other people think, to the terrible insecurity in which we need at every chance we get to let others in on the hidden fact of our great worth.
And into that all-too-common human foolishness Jesus introduces an equation that must have taken the disciples a good, long time to comprehend and accept: “If you really want to be first, you have to be the servant of all.”
That can’t mean that we are denied a good self-image; it’s obvious that Jesus thought well of himself – he never belittled or down-graded himself. His perfect humility was based on perfect truth. He knew well who and what he was, but his mind and heart were attuned to the goodness in other people and to the infinite goodness of the God whom he called Father. To bring out the goodness of others and to show forth the goodness of the Father Jesus became the servant of all.
Isn’t that where we are apt to fail? As the expression goes, we’re “stuck on ourselves,” and that’s a sterile and destructive way to be. What we may have forgotten, or perhaps never have learned, is that our genuine greatness lies in how well we are serving life in others who cannot be fully alive without us, and how well we can make known, by the way we act, the creative love of God in our midst.
(I got this from an article in the Italian press.) Shortly after Pope Francis’ election, he was walking down the aisle in the Sistine Chapel when he heard an infant cry. He turned his head to see a young mother somewhat hidden behind a pillar feeding her infant. Francis said, “Feed him. He’s hungry.” The mother, who, I assume was breast-feeding the baby, answered, “But here, in church??” Francis replied, I’m sure with his characteristic, warm smile, “Of course here in church. That’s what church is all about – feeding one another.”
By what miracle did this man become pope? How easy and inspiring it is to see Jesus in him!