In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus is asking a crucial question. The word crucial here is selected carefully. It comes from the Latin cruces, meaning “cross.” Indeed, looming over this entire gospel is the Cross. Jesus makes the second prediction of His passion, death, and resurrection. It is in the context of this teaching that the Lord asks the “crucial” question of us: What is most central in our life? Let’s look at this gospel in five stages.
I. The Processional Picture – The gospel text opens this way: Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee. This will be Jesus’ final journey through Galilee. He is heading south, unto His passion, death, and resurrection.
Do not miss, in this first stage, the importance of seeing our own life as a kind of procession, a journey. We, too, are making a journey through this life, our first and only journey. We, too, with every step we take, move closer to our own death and, we pray, our resurrection with and unto the Lord.
All along the way we meet people and find things that will either help us or hinder us in getting ready for life’s true destination. There are people and things that will help us, and people and things that will distract us. Since this is a fallen world, it is a sad and perhaps unfair fact that there will be more to distract and divert us into foolish desires, pointless paths, and frivolous and harmful philosophies. More on that in a moment.
For now, simply note that the Lord is on a procession. He is headed for a critical destination, one that matters, one on which rests our very destiny. We, too, are on such a path, and while we cannot save ourselves we can surely harm ourselves. Our destiny is caught up in the decisions we make on life’s journey. Yes, we are on a procession with Jesus.
II. The Pain that is Proclaimed – The text says that though Jesus was journeying through Galilee, he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them that the Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death, the Son of Man will rise. And while the Lord surely says this in great confidence, knowing what the end shall ultimately be, we must not overlook the pain lurking in this text.
That Jesus seeks to journey quietly through Galilee is likely because He does not want to be diverted by the often-endless requests that surrounded His public appearances. But one can also imagine here a portrait of pain.
In our grief, we sometimes need to draw aside, to be with close friends and family. Large gatherings are not for us during these times.
Yet even as Jesus is teaching the disciples some very difficult things about what He will go through, the apostles are dealing with their own issues. They seem to draw back and get quiet. The text says, they were afraid to ask him any questions about this matter.
The text implies this drawing back when it later recounts that Jesus had to ask them what they were discussing as they journeyed. So it would seem that either they drew back from Jesus, or perhaps Jesus walked some distance from them, alone in His thoughts.
And thus, though we have to read be between the lines to see it, there seems to be a portrait here of Jesus in some pain, and somewhat alone in that pain. And His pain was surely increased by the selfish and egotistical discussion He must have known the disciples were having. He asked them the question as if He did not know, but surely He knew. They were debating as to who was the greatest.
III. Their Pretentious Pride – The text says, They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
Are you kidding me? No, a very consistent theme in the Scriptures that of the “inept response.” Over and over again Jesus will give a teaching, often with great solemnity, and then immediately thereafter the apostles will give a response indicating that they don’t understand Him at all, that they have completely missed the point. Inept they are, even indecent and pretentious. Having heard the Lord speak of dying painfully at the hands of others, they digress pretentiously into a conversation about which of them is the greatest.
But before we scorn or laugh at the apostles we must remember that we are the disciples. We do this very sort of thing. We divert our attention to all sorts of foolish things that don’t matter. We worry about who’s the big cheese or who’s the most important. How pointless and foolish these conversations and concerns are! How inept of us would-be disciples to get carried away with these sorts of concerns. But we do it every day, dozens of times a day.
This woefully inept and pretentious response of the disciples (and of us), which only increased Jesus’ pain, leads Him to ask the crucial question. It leads us to the central point of this gospel.
IV. The Principal Point – It is at this moment that Jesus asks the crucial question, a question not only for the Twelve, but for us as well. The text says that they came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They remain silent out of sheer embarrassment, for they had been discussing who among them was the greatest.
“What were you arguing about on the way?” Why is this a crucial question? Perhaps if we see the question in other formats it will help. The Greek word that is translated here as arguing is διαλογίζομαι (dialogízomai), which means to reason, consider, ponder, wonder, or debate. The dia, at the beginning of the word is an intensifier and indicates a kind of back-and-forth aspect. And hence we get the concept of a debate or an argument.
With this in mind, perhaps we can hear the Lord asking the question in this way: “What are you discussing as you make your journey in life? What are you passionate about? What peaks your interest? What engages you and what do you choose to engage others about? What is of central interest to you? What is going on in your mind all day long?”
Honestly, it is a sad and embarrassing reality that so many of us who call ourselves disciples are overwhelmingly preoccupied with things that are futile, passing, of little real in importance, frivolous, and oftentimes just plain stupid. And even things that have some relative importance get an undue amount of our attention.
Meanwhile, things that do matter, the things that matter most to God, such as our salvation, our knowledge of Him, our preparation for death and judgment, repentance, love, justice, mercy; what is true, good, decent, virtuous, and beneficial in salvation; prayer, the frequent reception of the sacraments, and things spiritual—all these things rank pitifully low in the lives of most people, even those who call themselves Christians and disciples.
We have four hours for a football game but no time for prayer. We find time for everything else and so little time for God and what matters to Him. We get so passionate about politics, sports, or what some silly television show has recently featured, but have little interest in the fact that so many souls are lost, that so many are deeply rooted in unrepentant sin, that so many don’t know why they were made, and that so many don’t know the Lord or His glorious Gospel. The slightest scare regarding our physical health sends us reeling; meanwhile our spiritual health goes so easily unattended.
Yes, what are we discussing; what are we thinking about as we make our journey? It is a crucial question. It says a lot about where our heart lies.
Do not miss this crucial question. What are you discussing; what are you thinking about on the way? Answer the Lord honestly and let Him go to work.
V. The Paradoxical Prescription – At the heart of the Lord’s crucial question is a diagnosis of our wrongful priorities and worldly thinking. The Lord then turns everything on its end and says, Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
In this particular gospel, their disordered thinking surrounds wrongful notions of importance, leadership, and greatness. The Lord directly addresses these wrongful notions by presenting this deeply paradoxical teaching. The paradox is that the greatest are not those who are served, but those who serve. The cleanup crew at the black-tie dinner get the Lord’s attention more so than those at the head table.
We tend to think of greatness in terms of how much money a person makes, how much authority he has, how much influence he has, or where he lives. None of these things matters at all to God. Yes, we are forever impressed by the rich and the famous, but God looks to the lowly, the poor, and especially to those who serve. A paradox is something that is contrary to the usual way of thinking. This teaching of the Lord’s is very paradoxical from any worldly perspective.
Yes, it is all very paradoxical; it puts to the lie all of our worldly obsessions. When we appear before Him someday, God will not care how much money we made (except the extent to which we were generous to the poor). He will not be impressed with the square footage of our home, the brand of our car, or how wide the plasma screen TV in our great room was. He certainly won’t care who our favorite sports hero was, what team we rooted for, or even if we were popular.
No, what will most impress Him is whether we served, whether we loved, and whether we knew Him and humbly sought to live His truth. He will not care whether we powerfully called the shots, but He will care whether we embraced His vision, lived His truth, and charitably cared for others by serving them in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbor the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captives, and bury the dead? Did we comfort the afflicted? Did we instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, and pray for the living and the dead? Did we humbly submit to the Lord in our life by seeking to live chastely, to curb and control our anger, and to resist our greed?
The fundamental prescription for us is that we change the way we think. In short, God will want to know if we were rich in what matters to Him.
The greatest are those who serve, who have others in mind, who seek not their own glory and will but the glory and will of God and the goodness of others. This is greatness to God; everything else is foolishness to Him.
In the end, the question resounds, “What are you discussing; what are you thinking as you make your way through this life?” It is the crucial question. And only the Cross and its power can fix our foolishness. For too easily we are like the disciples, debating among ourselves about who’s the greatest; who’s the big cheese; who’s in charge; who gets to call the shots.
What are you discussing as you make your way? It’s a crucial question.
An old spiritual says, simply, “Fix me, Lord; fix me. Fix me for my long white robe. Fix me, Jesus; fix me. Fix me for my journey home. Fix me, Jesus; fix me.”