In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks of serving others. While the apostles are arguing about who is greatest, Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first among them ought to understand that the one who is “last” and exercises the role of servant to others is first. This is deeply countercultural but even more deeply a challenge to elements of human nature that seem to be nearly instinctive.
The other day I was driving in to work and at a certain point in the road, the lanes merge. Cars ordinarily take turns letting one car go in front from each lane. It’s the convention of traffic. It is what is fair. As I prepared to merge, two cars went in front of me. I thought, that’s fine, I don’t need to be first. Then a third car refused to let me in. At this point, I thought, I have every right to merge and refused to budge. So did the other car. All the way up to the final merge point. At the last second I relented in order not to be hit.
In an instant, I went from thinking of myself as relatively generous on the road–because I often do let people go in front of me–to recognizing that I can be a lot like the disciples who are competitively vying to be in front, or at least stubbornly refusing to be last. I suspect that most of us are like this: generous and willing to let others be first when it’s our own act of generosity but much less willing to be last when it feels like a matter of fairness. Even if we are on a collision course as a result.
Jesus asks us to stop thinking and acting like this. Rather than considering ourselves and others either in terms of competition, or even fairness, Jesus brings our attention to a small child. Jesus says that the one who receives a child is also receiving Jesus and the one who sent him: God.
The model of receiving a child makes for an excellent teachable moment because our attitude towards children tends to be softer and gentler than towards adults, because we expect adults to be better. If a child acts in caring ways, a parent feels delight. When a child is still learning to share, and acts selfishly, we receive them anyway and try to think about constructive ways they can grow. Or if we are not the parent, we simply understand, she or he is only a child. We understand the child is still growing and learning. The child needs love and direction, but also a good deal of latitude.
Of course, this is also true of us as adults. We all have our more mature aspects of character, and the places where we respond too competitively or childishly, just as the disciples did. We are no less the child who desires receptivity than the adult who is capable. We want to be received “as is” even as we all strive to grow and mature throughout our lives.
It made me wonder if Jesus’ invitation to be last rather than first was not only to stop acting in childish ways or an invitation to servant leadership (an important topic but one for another day). Perhaps it was also more simply to put up with the childishness in others with a little more softness, gentleness, and receptivity. After all, when we do so, we are also receiving in the other something that is equally true of ourselves.
Even Jesus was a child. Jesus grew up and one of the ways in which he matured was to set aside competitiveness for honor in favor of washing the feet of others and even dying for others. We can think about the ways we also can practice “dying to self” in little daily ways, while receiving others as they are.