Our gospel today is almost two separate stories, but it's important to understand how they go together. First, Jesus is predicting his Passion and the disciples are just not getting it, and then there's this lesson about humility. The two sections could each easily stand on their own, but it's better to see them together.
This is the second time in Mark's gospel that Jesus has predicted his Passion, whey he says, "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." Jesus does this a couple time throughout the gospel, trying to get his apostles ready for what's coming. We heard the first prediction last week, just after Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ. They didn't get it last week, and they don't get it this time either. It's important to note here that Jesus isn't speaking to the crowds anymore. For right now, he's only speaking to his disciples; he's giving special attention to his close followers to try to prepare them for what's coming.
Last week when Jesus predicted his Passion, Peter tried to rebuke him and insist that no such thing could happen. But this week when the disciples don't get it, they're too afraid to ask further. Since this is the second time Jesus spoke like this, the disciples are starting to wonder if he might actually mean it, but they're afraid of the implications. If he is really going to be handed over, a term signifying absolute surrender, he is going to let these awful things happen to him, then what might that mean for them? They're expecting Jesus to be some sort of conqueror, and they want to ride on his coattails to victory. But if his victory is going to involve some sort of suffering and death, that makes them afraid, so they don't ask further. But it's sad that they're afraid to ask because Jesus isn't just giving them a warning about what's coming, he's giving them an invitation to join him.
And instead of listening to his words and taking them seriously, they begin an inappropriate discussion about who is the greatest. Now, since Jesus took such pains to correct this discussion, we don't want to see in their discussion a lighthearted talk about whom the better fisherman is or who can throw a football farthest. For Jesus to take the time to correct it, they had to be having a discussion about who was the most virtuous or who was the most deserving of God's love. They had to be having a serious discussion about which of them was the greatest, not a joking one.
So this is where the gospel hits home for us, when we look at how Jesus reacts to their entirely inappropriate discussion. Jesus knows what they were talking about, and what does he do? Does he condemn them or berate them for being so slow? No. Does he excuse them and ignore their totally inappropriate behavior? No. He teaches them.
Let's pause here and examine the silence when Jesus asks them what they were discussing. The disciples' silence speaks volumes. It's a guilty silence, because they know they messed up. Jesus is trying to explain his own violent death and they start discussing which of them is the greatest. So let's look at this for a minute. When our own weakness and our sin comes face to face with Jesus's holiness and gentleness, it should produce in us a feeling of guilt like it did for the disciples here, but never of shame. It's important to clarify between those two words. We often use them interchangeably, but if we use them technically, guilt is that feeling that says, "I did something bad" or, "I did something wrong," whereas shame says, "I am bad." The difference is crucial. When my sin confronts God's holiness, it can and should produce feelings of guilt because that pushes me to change. But shame is never from God, shame comes from the devil whispering in my ear that I am a bad person and that there is no hope. Guilt should lead us to change, but shame simply leads to despair. Guilt can be good if we use it to change, but shame is simply a lie. As Christians who are loved by God, we are made good by God loving us and so we have no reason for shame.
So Jesus takes this guilt that comes from their actions, and he uses it to teach them. He doesn't excuse their actions, nor does he condemn them for it. He uses it to teach them, and the lesson he teaches them is one that each of us needs to hear too. Jesus constantly emphasizes this virtue of humility not because it pleases him to see us all playing nice and letting someone else go first in line, but because humility prepares us for the Passion. Pride can take many different forms, but in this case for the disciples it consisted in them trying to set themselves above each other, which was totally contrary to the humility of the Passion, the "being handed over," that Jesus was just predicting. Pride, insisting that you are the greatest, only sets you up for a fall. Pride is a lie, pride is building your house on sand. When life gets tough, everything you've built will fall. When the storms come, they will reveal that you built your life around you, and when push came to shove, you fell right over.
Humility, on the other hand, being the last of all and servant of all, is so much more than just being nice to each other. Jesus doesn't want us to just be nice to each other. He wants us to receive that person who, quite frankly, it doesn't benefit us to receive. In humility, I can recognize my own weakness and I can recognize that building my life with my own supposed greatness as the foundation is bound to fail. Humility allows me to build my life around God, who is the only sure foundation. This child represents all those who are unable to pay you back for your charity in this world, and in this way this child represents each of us as we relate to God. For everything God does for us, we can't even begin to pay him back. Humility is superior to pride because it helps us to recognize our true position in the world, which is a dignified and noble position. So placing yourself as last of all and servant of all means that you have emptied yourself, it means that you will have the strength to follow Jesus as he allows himself to be handed over. Pride won't do it, pride will crumble. Humility gives you the strength to endure the Cross in order to experience the Resurrection.