In some faith communities, the same people are called upon time after time to serve on the most influential committees and make all the important decisions. They may be tried and true in terms of the wisdom they have to offer, or they may be generous donors who deserve a say in what is done with their contribution. Certain other people are always passed over. They themselves may not recognize the gifts they have to offer until someone calls them forth and helps them develop their talents. This is what Jesus does in today’s Gospel.
While his disciples are wrangling over who is the greatest among them, Jesus turns to those who are left out, wraps his arms around one, and pulls him or her into the very center of the circle. Jesus teaches his disciples that the one who appears most vulnerable and seems to need the greatest amount of care can also be the one who has the most to teach us about what it is to be Christlike and God-like.
This teaching is especially ironic because Jesus has just finished telling his disciples that he will be killed and then rise from the dead. They miss the import. Instead, the Twelve are worried about who is first in his affections and in the exercise of his mission.
For most disciples the temptation is not to seek honor and glory and high positions. Having interiorized Jesus’ mandate to be “servant of all,” we may find ourselves falling prey to the subtle desire to become the greatest of servants—the one who sits on the most committees, spends the most hours in prayer, teaches the greatest number of students, preaches the best homilies. Jesus redirects his disciples’ attention to those who are most vulnerable and whose gifts are undervalued and least developed. Those of us who would be good leaders in the pattern of Jesus must turn to those of lowest status, embrace them and bring them into the midst of the circle.
In this Gospel passage Jesus is addressing disciples who have some measure of power, privilege and status; he invites them to a leadership style based on relinquishment and service to all, especially the most needy. By contrast, Jesus’ leadership empowers those who are forced into positions of servitude in society and places them at the center.
This manner of acting diffuses the jealousy and selfish ambition that James decries in the second reading. James chronicles all kinds of undesirable results that come from choices based on self-interest. The first reading, by contrast, like the Gospel, speaks about a manner of leadership by persons devoted to justice and peace-building and warns of the negative consequences that befall them. It exposes the thinking of wicked ones who resent an upright person who speaks the truth to them about the need to mend their ways. They would sooner kill than heed such a messenger. They plot to torture and kill the upright one, testing not only the genuineness of the just one, but even putting God’s faithfulness on trial. They mistakenly think that the proof of intimacy with God is preservation from harm. St. Teresa of ávila remarked on this paradox, complaining to God about the trials and tribulations she had to endure on account of her closeness to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!” That God upholds the faithful, even if the manner of doing so is inscrutable to us, is affirmed in today’s responsorial psalm.