Who is the Greatest

Resurrection Sunday is this Sunday and so I am rereading the story of Jesus’ final week and this year, because of the lectionary, I am reading it in Luke. As I was reading something jumped off the page for me, as Jesus is trying to bind the new community (his disciples) together in common worship, they are trying to fracture.

But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me,  so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Luke 22:21-30

All week I have been struck by the fact that Jesus announces he is being betrayed by one of his closest followers and then is promptly forgotten while those same followers argue. The disciples are not even content with one argument but let the initial fight devolve into a second even more potentially divisive conflict. The way this scene plays out in my head is, Jesus tells his disciples that one of them is arranging for his death, they hear that and begin accusing one another and answer those accusations saying, “I’m more important than you are.”

Think about this, Jesus has just instituted a meal calling them to unity sharing as equals in a family and they only think about greatness. Jesus says he has been betrayed to death and their only thoughts are about clearing their names. Luke wants us to recognize the disciples should have been concerned with uniting around Jesus and instead they were divided by there need for power and prestige. Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples to care for one another after he was gone and they were too busy trying to be at the top of the pyramid. And so we see Jesus issue a stern rebuke, reminding them how the structure of his kingdoms works. Jesus hears their discussion and calls on each of them to be the greatest servant. But Jesus’ advice, especially in that moment, is counterintuitive. The group pressure in that room seems to be to take a stand so strong that no one could question another disciple’s loyalty to the group and the group’s need for that disciple. When I read the story of the Last Supper I am left with the impression the disciples were not openly saying, “I’m the best”, I think they were lining up their achievements and saying, “how dare you question my commitment.” I might be wrong but it seems much more likely to me that they were not explicitly trying to be number one but each was clinging so tightly to their position that they were dismissing what the others said.

Here we are 2,000 years later and still learning the same lesson, Jesus is trying to help us understand the meaning of the Last Supper and we are caught up in the chaos of jockeying for position. As I look at social media (and elsewhere) I see a disciples of Jesus still trying to claim the most power and prestige, doing so by trying to leverage the Bible. Just like the first disciples were surely clinging to their acquaintance with Jesus and his message as they asserted dominance in the group, so we have disciples today who will use the Scriptures to attack others. We are not trying to create unity in the body and figure out what Jesus means by betrayal and how we can help. Rather, we keep throwing out the wrongs others have commuted and asserting how we have gotten things right over the years. Implicitly our arguments amount to, “See Jesus I am the greatest and this is why you should put me in charge.”

Luke wants us to see how this mentality contrasts with the message of the Communion Supper. Jesus wants us to be humble servants not despotic rules. Sometimes it is most difficult to live this out when we know Jesus is being betrayed by a disciple and we think we know who it is. What does Jesus tell us to do in the circumstances of betrayal, remain faithful to his words, remain humble servants of all and help those around you who need you the most.*

*I do recognize that there are times when a spiritual leader has abused that position and in such times of course they should be called out and removed from leadership. But this post is directed toward the ordinary bickering I see within the Church and how it violates Jesus’ intent.

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