Mark 9:33-37

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There is an article before “house.” “And having come into the house…” indicates that it was a particular house; probably Peter’s, a house that had become a second home for Jesus and has been mentioned already in the Gospel. He often taught his disciples in a house, when he had them apart, separated from the crowds.

And there is something Jesus wanted to talk to them about: no doubt he had overheard their conversation.

The setting of this short paragraph – indeed all of the material to the end of the chapter – provides a clue to its interpretation. Jesus had just reminded them that he must be betrayed and die in order to fulfill his mission. But his disciples are still indulging delusions of grandeur. They expect, Jesus’ power being what it was, that he will create a great kingdom in the world and they are curious as to which of them would be the greatest figure in that kingdom. They were not expecting him to suffer and so weren’t expecting that they would have to suffer either. Status and prestige were filling their heads, not a summons to humility. Everyone knows, of course, at a certain level, how unpleasant pride is, and so these grown men sit in embarrassed silence, hoping not to have to admit to their conversation on the road. For all we know, the conversation between them may have been prompted by a certain offense taken by the nine at the privilege afforded to Peter, James, and John, who alone had been asked to accompany Jesus up the mountain. [France, 373]

Interestingly, there was quite a bit of interest in this matter of status and position in the kingdom of God in the Judaism of the day. The rabbis would talk about the seating order in Paradise and orders of seating here on earth, at worship and at banquets, was thought to reflect what would be the case in heaven. One’s place was thought to be determined by one’s various achievements, depending upon which rabbi was making up the list. [Edwards, 286]

Humility is not, of course, a virtue unique to the teaching of Christianity. Jewish rabbis said something quite similar to the Lord’s teaching here. You find the same in Plutarch, the Roman writer. [Edwards, 287] But it is one thing to say such a thing; another altogether to practice it in life and to overcome the raging pride in the human heart.

Jesus makes very particular his understanding of humility by saying that it is the equivalent of being everyone’s servant. A servant was commonplace in the ancient world and his work or hers was very ordinary, uninspiring, and lacking any particular dignity or notice. The only time anyone noticed a servant was when he or she failed to do what was required. Otherwise a servant was part of the wallpaper of life.

To make the point more powerfully the Lord illustrates it as he will do later by washing his disciples’ feet. But it is important to grasp the point of the illustration. The child is not employed here as a picture of humility. That mistake has often been made. One commentator suggests that the Lord used a child because children are “untempted to self-advancement.” [Allen, Matthew ICC, ad loc] You can always tell when a commentator hasn’t had children himself! The Lord isn’t talking about some supposed virtue in children that we are to emulate. The child on Jesus’ lap illustrates what it means to be little. A child was of little importance in that society, not taken seriously except as a responsibility. In defining humility Jesus, by using the example of a child, says that it begins in that spiritual mind in which one sees himself or herself as little, inconsequential, unimportant. We love our children, to be sure, but we don’t want to be like them!

We have the illustration of this every Lord’s Day here at Faith Presbyterian Church. After services morning and evening adults fall to talking to one another, conversations everywhere. And around them and virtually unnoticed by them washes a sea of little children running and playing – noticed only when they cry or scream too loudly and interrupt the adults’ fellowship. They are easy to ignore because they are so little and because they have nothing very interesting or important to contribute to our conversations. And it is in that sense that Jesus says we are to become as little children.

But then the Lord turns the tables. Obviously the disciples are not, in fact, little children. They are grown men. And so the true servant, the really humble man or woman, is not the child but the one who embraces and welcomes and cares for the child, the little, the insignificant. That is what Jesus himself had been doing and that is what he wants his disciples to do. But, of course, there is no credit to welcoming children. We want to welcome adults; there is some credit in that. We want to be regarded as equal to a conversation with adults. Anyone is equal to a little child.

To receive such is to receive Jesus and to receive Jesus is to receive God the Father who sent him into the world.

More than a century ago now, Max Mueller, Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University gave a lecture to the British and Foreign Bible Society. In that lecture he said that after 40 years of studying the religions of the East – probably a more comprehensive and discerning study of those religions than had been made by any other living person – he could say with confidence that all of them – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and the rest – were in agreement as to their basic principle. All held and taught that salvation – whatever salvation was understood to be in that religion – salvation was by works. It was achieved through the efforts of men and women to find and to please god, whomever and whatever god was thought to be in that religion. The Bible and the Christian faith that is based upon it, he went on to say, is one sustained and grand protest against this doctrine held in common by all the other faiths. The Bible also, of course, lays an emphasis on good works, indeed they are emphasized more strongly and defined more searchingly than in any other faith, but they are never the means of salvation and never the price of God’s favor. They come after salvation, not before it. They are the result of salvation, not the cause of it. In Christianity alone is salvation a divine gift that is given to men and must be given to them as a gift, because they are neither deserving of salvation nor capable of achieving its requirements. [Cited by Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, iii, 553n]

Well we Christians are the proof of that statement! We are the living demonstration that salvation is a gift and happens because of the grace of God. Because even after we have been saved, even after we have been introduced to the love of God in Jesus Christ we demonstrate many times every day that we were and still are long past saving ourselves. If our goodness were the price of eternal life our case would be hopeless. If to obtain entrance into heaven we had to meet the requirements of the God who gave us our conscience, we would certainly fail to obtain it. And so it has always been and so it will always be. Human beings are, morally speaking, quite pathetic creatures! The Lord’s disciples were and so are we. Their conversation on the road was just one demonstration of that.

It is interesting the way that Mark indicates that the Lord’s disciples, so far as their attitudes and their thinking is concerned – the true measure of a human life, by the way – are more like the Lord’s enemies than they are like him. Their embarrassed silence in v. 34 is expressed in precisely the same Greek phrase as that used in 3:4 to describe the embarrassed and angry silence of the Jews in the synagogue who were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus but didn’t know how to answer his question. We have already read that the disciples’ hearts were hard (6:52), precisely the same thing said about the hearts of the Jews in general in 3:5. The same moral description is offered for both the Lord’s closest followers and his outright enemies! The great difference between the two groups of people, the disciples and the enemies, the saved and the lost, is not found in their behavior, but in their relationship to Jesus. The disciples were at least possessed of a glimmer of understanding that their hope of salvation was all wrapped up in Jesus the Christ.

And nothing demonstrates how much real believers, real followers of Christ remain like unbelievers, even in many ways like the enemies of Christ, is the extent to which they remain proud and self-centered. We rarely put it to ourselves this way, of course, but like the disciples here, we want the best for ourselves and down deep we think we deserve it.

The difference lies here. The real Christian, even as he or she recognizes the extent to which pride and self-love still motivate his or her attitudes, thoughts, words, and deeds, knows that this is very wrong, an inexcusable fault, utterly unworthy of a Christian. And the reason why it is so is because, as Jesus makes the point of saying here, it is supreme disloyalty to Jesus himself. He was going to the cross while his disciples dreamed of being great in the eyes of men. The Lord made himself nothing; the creator of the world became the lowest servant and then went to the cruelest imaginable death for the sake of the salvation of unworthy sinners while his disciples are dreaming of being exalted. It is entirely appropriate that we should be considering this text and this subject at Christmas time. The incarnation, theologians say, is the beginning of Christ’s humiliation. Our salvation came to pass through a great stoop that God the Son took for us: down from the highest heaven to the manger, from the glory of God to the ignominy of the cross. And that humiliation, that lowering of himself for others is not only the means of our salvation, it is to become the pattern of our lives.
People have often taught that we can live the Christian life best if we just “do what Jesus would do” in every situation. Usually, however, when they say that, they are not thinking about becoming the last or the lowest of all! But that is what Jesus did!

Do you appreciate how utterly unique this is? The gods of Greece and Rome and the other gods of antiquity had nothing of this humility, this willingness to stoop so low for the salvation of men and women. The gods of the world’s great religions today are not thought to have done any such thing. Only the true and living God has humbled himself so terribly and so wonderfully. No wonder that such lowliness of heart and life should be the first principle of his followers.

If we have received Christ’s salvation, if we have laid hold of that new and eternal life that comes from his lowliness and suffering, who are we then to put on airs; who are we to think ourselves better than others, more deserving. Who are we, of all people, to be preoccupied with status and station and reputation and our position relative to others? Had our Savior thought the way we so often think we would still be in our sins and facing a future of hopeless despair. It is that utter incongruity between our pride and our salvation, between our self-admiration and our theology that teaches us that our salvation is an immeasurably great gift given to the utterly undeserving, that has made the recognition of our persistent self-love and pride one of the most painful features of a Christian’s life in this world. We are like the disciples in this as well: we don’t want anyone to know – and so we keep our mouths shut – about how proud we actually are and how hot the fire of self-love is that still burns in our hearts.

Read any diary or journal of a great Christian, from the earliest centuries to the present day and you will find evidence of this struggle: this desire to be rid of pride and self-seeking and this bitter recognition that a great deal of it still remains in the heart. Here, as an example, are a few entries from Jim Elliot’s journal, all from the year 1949.

  1. June 27: “If I ever lacked any two graces and needed them worse, I don’t remember when it was. Lowliness – I don’t know what it means; and tears, I haven’t shed any for months.”
  2. July 26: “Been a while since I wrote anything. Seem to be pulling out of one of my month-long spiritual slack spells. Confession of pride – suggested by David Brainerd’s diary yesterday – must be an hourly thing with me.
  3. August 21: “I sense tonight that my desires to be great are likely to frustrate God’s intentions for good to be one through me. O Lord, let me pray again with earnest, honest heart. I will not to be great, only, God, grant to me thy goodness.”

And here is an example for you women, one of thousands I might give you. This comes from the life of Sarah Edwards, the wife of Jonathan Edwards, the great colonial New England preacher. During one of Jonathan’s absences from his pulpit during a time of revival, when preachers were often called to preach elsewhere, a young minister by the name of Samuel Buell was invited to preach in Northampton in Edwards’ pulpit. Sarah heard of the invitation and wanted to be delighted for the church and the town – because Buell was a very gifted preacher – but struggled in her heart because she feared that he would be even more successful than her husband had been and the people might think him a better preacher. She was jealous for her husband’s place and name and status and it bothered her that she was and that she had to struggle so much against those feelings. “It takes more grace than I can tell, to play the second fiddle well.” She realized exactly what it was in her heart – it was pride that produced that jealousy – and so she did what real Christians have always done. She dealt with herself and then prayed for the greatest possible success for Mr. Buell.

It is such people, agonizing over their pride and determined to be humble, who make martyrs and great missionaries and really fruitful Christians.

We know that. We know why we ought to be humble as sinners saved by grace. But how are we to do it? How do we school ourselves in this grace of true humility? And that, it seems to me, is the burden of the Lord’s teaching of his disciples here. He is not simply telling them what they must become; he is telling them how to do it! Mark, we have said on a number of occasions, is interested in teaching the ways and means of Christian discipleship. He wrote his Gospel in part to teach his first readers – Gentile Christians in Rome in the middle of the 1st century, what it means to follow Jesus and how that is done. And what we have in this paragraph is a straightforward lesson in discipleship and one of the most basic parts of discipleship, the practice of Christian humility.

Humility is, to be sure, a state of mind. It is a recognition of one’s littleness spiritually, morally, and in every other way. But that state of mind is best produced by its practice. As C.S. Lewis famously put it, “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.” So if you think you need convincing that you are as little as the Bible says you are, practice humility and see how easy it comes to you!

But how is it practiced? And it is precisely the answer to that question that Jesus gives us here.

“In anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

The NIV’s very last captures the sense. The text literally reads, “the last of all.” It is a typically extravagant expression of Christian devotion. Not second place or third, not even the middle of the pack, but last of all; very last. Aim for the bottom! The one who aims any higher than that will not rise as far in this grace or in the service that can only be offered to Christ by the truly humble.

And then the Lord makes it still easier for us to understand what that means. Take a child, he says. Children are little, inconsequential in the adult scheme of things. Make yourself their servant; not just children but those who are like them in their being inconsequential, people who will not increase your stature or your reputation by your association with them. Serve them. Do things on their behalf precisely because there is no reward in it for you.

Humility is usually defined in activist ways in the Bible. It is not finally a state of mind, though it must be that first of course. Humility is a way of acting. It is putting others before yourself. Living for God and others is the Bible’s simplest definition of humility. In the famous passage in Philippians 2 Paul says that being Christ-like amounts to treating others as more important than yourself. We are used to that phrase; it rolls off our tongue as if we know what it means. But when we stop to think about it, when we consider how important we are to ourselves, how we serve ourselves so much of the time, it almost baffles us to think that we could invest that same sort of devotion and commitment in someone else’s life. But that is what Jesus did. He put us first. It is this active, behavioral cast to Christian humility that led C.S. Lewis to say, in the famous passage on pride in Mere Christianity (109-114):

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays. He will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. … He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

But here the Lord adds something to that description, true as it is. He makes the definition even more searching. He says that the truly humble man will have a special interest in and pay a special attention to the people who count the least. He will feel a special bond with such people and take pleasure in being with them and helping them, because in helping and serving them, he is acting more like the Lord Jesus acted in saving him.

In part, it was this specific and special kind of humility that St. Francis of Assisi was practicing when he showed kindness, good manners, and care for animals, preached to the birds, and so on. Animals are even littler than little children, even more inconsequential, even less useful to human beings wishing to exalt themselves. And the legends that speak of the animals’ love for the saint are a way of expressing, as Jesus put it, how high the man rises who lowers himself to the bottom in serving others.

To set out, on purpose, with real intention, to be the servant of those on the bottom rungs of human life, is the best way both to test your willingness to follow the Lord in his humility and to put on that humility yourself. Many have tried but have immediately turned away. They are, like Bunyan’s character in The Holy War, “Loth[e]-to-Stoop.” They might have managed had they aimed for the middle, but to be the servant of all, to be the very last, was more than they could imagine. Their love for Christ wasn’t strong enough to take them down that far. We marvel at a person like Theresa of Calcutta, who became the servant of the lowest of the low, children who existed, one could hardly say lived, in the gutter of one of the world’s poorest cities. But the most thoughtful among us are not so surprised to have learned recently how hard that life was for her, being the servant of all and the very last. Perhaps it would be easier for us to imagine emulating the Christian woman I heard of once who made it her practice to clean up afterward every bathroom she used—in a restaurant, gas station—it didn’t matter, with what was there to use—paper towel, water, whatever—she would clean the toilet, the sink, the counter, the floor. Doing it for others, who wouldn’t even know she had done it for them, but even more doing it for herself.

That service, lowly as it is, is the path to true humility and to the right kind of heart and mind, what every human being ought to seek and what every Christian ought to crave.

Genuine humility, the Lord seems to be telling us, is not going to be obtained chiefly by beating ourselves up over the pride we find still so much of in our hearts. We do need to do battle with ourselves about that. I remember years ago when ordering my first business cards a little struggle I had with myself about whether to put my degrees on the card. But, once the battle was joined and I was forced to admit precisely why I wanted PhD behind my name, well, I had to leave the degrees off. That was good for me and there will be a thousand such battles that each of you must fight with yourself concerning your desire to be first instead of last. But, in the final analysis, pride will not leave your heart because you have killed it, but because it has been crowded out and you have been made busy with other interests and other considerations.

Set out to be last and to be the servant of all, and, especially, the servant of those who are little as the world counts such things. That is what anyone who takes Jesus’ words here seriously will do. It isn’t rocket-science, brothers and sisters, it is simply taking steps. And the serious-minded among us can already think of ways to do that in their case: to be the servant of all. There are plenty of people to serve. Serve them. Do for them what you would like to have done for yourself. Do it on purpose with the intention not only of serving them and Christ in them; do it not only because the one who welcomes the little, welcomes Christ, and then welcomes God into his or her heart. Do it because nothing so effectively lays the ax to the root of all that is your heart that stands directly opposed to Jesus Christ. Do it because it is the best and most direct way to offer yourself to the Lord Jesus as his willing servant and so be his disciple. Do it this Christmas especially because it is the best way to imitate him in his incarnation, his great stoop down from heaven to earth, and because imitation is the sincerest form of admiration and praise.

Tell the Lord that you want to be last and want to be happy being last and then act on that conviction, sure that if we, being evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the Lord give his Holy Spirit to those who ask him.