Some of the most in depth conversations I can remember from my childhood and adolescence, those conversations with my parents that REALLY mattered, happened in sort of a strange place. At least it seemed strange to me. Now, years later I’ve heard that it’s not uncommon, and in fact one youth ministry expert works to not only encourage, but foster these sorts of heart-to-heart conversations because apparently I am not the only one who had my most pivotal conversations with my mom while sitting in the car.
Yep. The car. Family dinners are important. One on one chats on the couch can be wonderful, but apparently for me and for many others, the best parts of our relationship were built while talking in the car. I can even remember some talks that ended in the dark garage because we couldn’t interrupt ourselves when we pulled in the driveway and the automatic light had long ago turned off.
In the car we’ve got nothing but time. The radio can provide that slight distraction that keeps us from feeling to vulnerable, the side by side seating gives a feeling of equality and takes a little bit of the edge off staring face to face. In the car we’ve got nothing but time and the endlessness of the road before us to keep the conversation flowing.
Jesus couldn’t exactly pile his disciples into a 15 passenger van as they left Caesarea Philippi, but he did the ancient world’s next best thing when he knew he had some important stuff to talk about. While they had been in Caesarea Philippi, the farthest north of all his travels, Jesus broke some difficult news to his disciples. He told them for the first time what awaited him as they made their way back to familiar territory – great suffering and rejection, pain and death. Understandably, his news about the treatment of the Messiah had been met with disbelief and complete denial.
Knowing they needed a chance to talk through this again, knowing the disciples seemed to be missing the point and the trajectory of his ministry, Jesus cleared plenty of time in the busy schedule, and with the disciples began the long return trip to Galilee, to Capernaum, about 40 miles away. They seemed to be able to dodge the crowds this time, so Jesus and his disciples had nothing but time.
It was the perfect opportunity to continue the difficult discussion he had tried once before. They could hash it out, discuss it, sit in the dark garage with their lives held open to teach other and find out what indeed it meant for the Son of Man to suffer, die, and rise again. But even with the stage set perfectly for a long heart-to-heart, it didn’t happen.
Jesus laid it all out there for a second time, and the words just dropped to the dusty road like a lead balloon. Silence. Not a peep from his disciples. Nothing. Actually, it’s worse than nothing as we watch this PAINFUL exchange because the disciples KNEW they didn’t get it, and they STILL didn’t speak up and get engaged in the conversation. They let Jesus’ words and their questions just fall from the air, because they were too afraid to ask them. Too afraid to ask, they shut themselves off from the reality that has been laid before them, answering Jesus’ shocking words with silence on the long walk to Capernaum.
Why do they do that? Why do we do that when we don’t understand? Why do we default to fear and silence instead of questions and dialogue? Are we scared that he will get mad? Jesus has shown frustration, maybe even anger before, like when Peter rebuked him in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus answered, “Get behind me, Satan,” and that isn’t exactly something anyone wants to hear twice? Do we fear that we will find out we’re wrong? Are we nervous that what we always thought was true really isn’t our expectations are being challenged? What is it that we fear? The news itself or the way we will have to change our living because of it?
Defeated and disappointed in the disciples’ lack of engagement, maybe even hurt by their apparent lack of concern, Jesus’ pace quickened a bit. He had just told them yet again the fate that was awaiting him in the coming days – a fate that included betrayal and murder – and they just let the words stand unquestioned, unexplained, unbelievable. Not only that, but as soon as they think he’s out of earshot, they began arguing about what seemed to REALLY matter to them, who among them was the greatest.
The nature of their argument exposed the depth of their cluelessness. Who is the greatest? Jesus just told them that the Son of Man, the Messiah sent from God, was going to be humiliated and killed, and his disciples are worried about who among them is the greatest. Jesus just told them that he is going to end up at the bottom of the barrel, and his disciples are worried about who is going to rise to the top of the heap. Who is the greatest? This is what they are worried about?
Who is the greatest? The one who stands the tallest? The one who walks the closest? The one who sits at his right hand? Who is the greatest? The one who shouts the loudest? The one who threatens the strongest? The one who steals the microphone to make his voice heard? Who is the greatest? The one who earns the most? The one whose sacrifices are public? The one whose bank accounts are the fullest? Who is the greatest? Who is the greatest we argue and scuffle with our words and our actions, with our scared and silent competitions? Who is the greatest we want to know as our Messiah, our Lord, listens disappointed by our focus? Who is the greatest?
It was a slap in Jesus’ face. From his point of view it’s like telling someone you have a terminal disease and having them change the subject to talk instead about how good they feel because of the nap just took. There’s a complete lack of compassion, not to mention utter selfishness and a total lack of understanding about the nature of Jesus’ ministry.
When the group finally reached Capernaum 30-40 miles from where they started, Jesus, who walked the rest of that painful trip alone far enough ahead that the disciples thought he couldn’t hear them, far enough ahead that they couldn’t see his disappointment in them, asked them what they argued about on the road the rest of the way. Embarrassed to answer, they fell silent yet again.
The disciples again were too scared to answer or ask the questions that really mattered. They knew in an instant they were missing the point. They knew as soon as he asked them. They knew in an instant NOTHING Jesus was about, none of the healing, none of the preaching, none of the casting out of demons nor calming of seas nor feeding the masses, was about making him the greatest of all. Because really, when has reaching out to any of these brought anyone fame or fortune. They knew in an instant their desire to be the greatest was all wrong, but even then they still remained silent.
Graciously Jesus steps in. With love and hope that they soon would “get it,” and mercy if they never would, he saves them from their embarrassing misunderstanding. He doesn’t chastise them for their fear; he doesn’t even acknowledge the complete MISS exposed by their argument. Instead, with a new way of teaching he shows them what he means instead of telling them what will happen.
This life he has called them to be a part of, this life of following the Messiah, the one sent by God to redeem the world, it’s not about being the greatest. It’s not about rising to the top. It’s not about being honored by our peers. It’s not about accumulating wealth or power or success in the eyes of the world. It’s not about being the most well-known, being the most attractive, being the first among all others, not for the disciples, not for us, not even for our church.
This life he has call them to be a part of, this life we have committed to being a part of, this life of following Jesus, it’s about two things – service and welcome. That’s how we succeed, if you can call it that. Sitting down among his confused and misfocused disciples, Jesus tells them what it means to be first in his kingdom. It means being last. It means setting aside ego and pride. It means honoring others before honoring ourselves. It means stepping down out of the seats of privilege we hold and not just moving to the back of the line, but serving, waiting on the ones who now stand in front of us. It’s not just about choosing to live simply because we have the luxury to do that; it’s about serving those who have no other choice.
To further show them what he means, Jesus brings a child to sit among them, no not just sit among them, to be held by him. We love this image, don’t we? We love to hang it in our Sunday School rooms and paint in on our nursery walls. We imagine a pastoral scene with a soft lens, soft light. But as is often the case with some of our favorite pictures, it would have dropped more jaws than sentimental tears in the time of Jesus. Childhood then was definitely not childhood now. Children were not considered a “precious gift” the way they are now. They were a blessing not in the joy they brought, but in the work they could do, the wealth they represented, the income they could bring or protect.
Under Roman law, a child was not even guaranteed the right to live at his or he birth. The pater familias, the father of the family or head of the household, could choose after the birth to accept the child’s life in the family or choose to have it put to death. Children were not really full humans in the dominant thought of the day. What Jesus is showing the disciples by bringing the young one among them is about more than welcoming innocence. It’s about welcoming those we consider below us, less than us, sub-human even.
Holding a child in his arms showed the disciples that his life was not about jockeying for position. Jesus’ ministry was not about climbing to the top to be declared the greatest. His ministry, the ministry of his true disciples, is not about seeking honor and ensuring a glory-filled reputation. It’s about serving the dishonored and glorifying the unwelcome. His ministry, the ministry of his true disciples, is not about insulating ourselves from the reality of pain and death, even the humiliating death on a cross. It’s about subjecting ourselves to that kind of ridicule from the world by serving those others would expect to serve us, welcoming the ones who are welcome no other place and welcoming them right into the very middle of our circle, right into our arms.
That’s the way to follow Jesus. That’s the way we understand what his life, what his death, what his resurrection is all about. We understand by serving the way he served, with his whole life shared with the whole world. We understand by welcoming the way he welcomed, with arms stretched open for the overlooked, the ignored, the unvalued.
Our fears and our silence may keep us from asking all the right questions, and you know, maybe our rational minds wouldn’t let us understand even if we gave them voice. So Jesus showed us what his way is all about. He showed us by teaching us with his example, by serving us with his grace. He showed us by welcoming and holding a child in his arms. He showed us by going all the way to the cross, not to be the greatest of all, but to be the servant of all, and to call us to this kind of life with him. May we find the courage to follow.