Trying to Be First
In the Gospel Reading, Jesus rebukes his disciples for arguing about who among them was first and greatest. But how do we suppose their argument went? There are two possibilities.
First Possibility: Each disciple was saying, “I am the greatest!” while the others were saying, “Oh no, you’re not! I am!”.
Second Possibility: Each disciple was saying to one of the others, “You are the greatest among us!,” and that person was saying, “Oh no, I’m not. You are.”
On the First Possibility, each disciple is trying to put himself ahead of all the others. On the Second Possibility, each disciple is trying to be small by putting some other disciple ahead of himself.
We are naturally inclined to think that the right possibility must be the first one. That is because Jesus rebukes the disciples, and we unreflectively suppose that Jesus wouldn’t want to rebuke them if each one was trying to be small.
But notice that if we adopt the first possibility, then Jesus’ rebuke doesn’t make sense. On the first possibility, what is wrong with the disciples is that each one is trying to be first. And so Jesus should rebuke them for trying to be first.
But that is not what Jesus rebukes the disciples for. On the contrary, Jesus gives the disciples a short instruction manual for how to get to be first. If you want to be first, he tells them, you have to be the servant of all. Would Jesus have explained to them how to get to be first if he thought that trying to be first was wrong?
So the Second Possibility is the right one. Each disciple was trying to be small in order to seem humble. But there is no true humility in trying to be small.
As the parable about the talents (cf. Matthew 25:24-28) shows, each person is called to strive for greatness by accepting the gifts God gives him and using them to the full. True humility lies in understanding that everything is gift; and everything is meant to be given back, in service of others.
When each person strives for greatness in this way, there is no competition. No one is ahead of the others, no matter how much greatness he achieves. Rather, all together are one in the Lord, and he is Lord over all (Rom.9:5). This is the way in which being the servant of all makes you first.