Text: James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
My favorite part of the gospel reading for this week is when Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what they were talking about as they walked to Capernaum—and the disciples are silent. They were arguing over who among them is the greatest, and when Jesus confronts them they immediately clam up.
This is human nature. I like this story because I can relate to it as a parent. I know when my kids are getting in trouble because they're quiet for too long. If I can hear them, I don’t worry. But if they’re too quiet I immediately start searching for them. Children instinctively know— at a very early age—to be quiet when they're doing something that will get them in trouble. We adults do it too. Isn’t it the worst feeling when someone calls you out on something, and you have no idea what to say? When you feel shrunk into a corner, exposed, and you know your silence is only giving you away? When we know we are doing something wrong, silence becomes our protective shield and our crutch.
The disciples have been following Jesus, watching him heal, teach, and even be transfigured. What do they talk about as they walk down the road soon after witnessing Jesus heal a boy with a demon? What do they discuss immediately after Jesus tells them for the second time that he will be killed and, after three days, raised to new life—news that will change the course of history? They argue over who among them is the greatest. If the people who followed Jesus—who lived, walked, and did ministry with him— couldn’t escape selfish ambition, how much harder it must be for us!
Their silence speaks volumes. The disciples are silent two times in our gospel reading for today. The first time is after Jesus reveals his near future full of suffering. They’re afraid to ask him questions. The second time they’re silent is when Jesus catches them arguing. Might this be a lesson to us? In both instances the disciples are too proud, too afraid to look stupid, too scared to speak, and so they say nothing. They can’t admit their vulnerability.
Ambition is ingrained in our culture. We reward it. I’m reminded of this every time I watch a competition reality show on TV. I’m always amazed at the contestants trying out for a singing competition—an area so competitive that they have a sliver of a chance of becoming famous, even if they win. They are so dead set on this being their only chance in life. They are convinced that winning this competition and receiving fame will turn their lives around, even though we know for a fact that fame doesn’t make life any easier or more fulfilling. I think about ambition as we look forward to watching the Emmys tonight—an over-the-top celebration of recognition and reward. Many of us are ambitious in our own ways. We want to be the best at our profession, the best parent, and the best at whatever hobby we choose. We use ambition to cover up our insecurities and fears.
Today’s text from James speaks directly to our need for ambition (from The Message):
“Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.”
We can insert any ambitious need into this text and it still works:
Boasting that we are smart isn’t smart. Twisting the truth to make it sound like we’re successful isn’t success. Boasting like we have tons of friends isn’t friendly. Twisting the truth to make it sound like we have everything together isn’t having everything together.
We could even take it further: Boasting that we are a good Christians isn’t being good Christians. Twisting the truth to make it sound like we’re compassionate isn’t compassionate.
James and Jesus call us out on our need to succeed, to compete, and to impress. Just like the disciples, we grow silent when we have to admit our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses. We use silence as a way to cover up what we don’t want others to know.
Thankfully, Jesus and James lead us down a new path. Jesus completely refocuses the disciples by bringing a child into their midst. Here, he says, this child—the lowest of the low, the most vulnerable, least successful, least knowledgeable person in our culture, is who you need to welcome and honor. And just like that he turns everything on its head. The argument about who is the greatest ceases to matter, and the disciples are called to live a new way.
“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”
Wisdom is full of gentleness, understanding and mercy that treats all people with dignity and honor. This opens up a whole new way of living for us. We’re released from this need to be better than others. We are no longer trapped in the vicious cycle of comparing ourselves to those around us. We are free to share our insecurities, vulnerabilities, and mistakes—and to find life and power in doing so!
Christ doesn’t look for who is the best or the greatest. Christ shows us that true power comes from vulnerability. He made himself vulnerable on the cross, to the point of death, to bring about a new kingdom in this world—one we are living out right now. This new kingdom that isn’t afraid of vulnerability or looking stupid or failing. This kingdom encourages honesty, truth and new identity in Christ. It refocuses us and helps us look outside ourselves to the needs around us. We’re called not to be the best, but to love.
If you are sitting here today thinking, “I’m not successful. I’m not smart enough. I’m not compassionate enough. I’m not wise enough. Look at those around me! How will I ever compare?” Welcome to the club! The church has a new word for you. You are valued because God loves you as God’s child. We are precious in God’s sight because of who we are—completely, sins and all. We look to others with the same compassion, and we find joy in humbleness. As James says, “Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.”