Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Hoping To Be Least

Bartholomew may have won the prize for being least among the disciples. This Friday, we celebrate his life and witness, but what that really means is that we celebrate his name because his name is all that we have. He is mentioned among the twelve disciples in the Synoptic tradition, but John, who never really names all twelve disciples, gives the story of Nathaniel's calling, and the tradition, perhaps because it's looking for something to say about Bart, pretends that they are the same person. That's how not-well-known Bart is.

Since we don't know anything about him, we don't know what role he played in the disciples' debate over who was the greatest (see Luke 22:24-30), but I like to think that he hung back, standing off to the side, letting Peter and James and John and Thomas argue about which one of them was the most important disciple. Even Matthew the tax collector had an argument to make since, as a tax collector, he was the most notorious sinner and, thus, the best example of Jesus' redemption among them. Bartholomew, well, we don't know his story. And maybe that's because he took Jesus' words so seriously.

When he heard them arguing among themselves, Jesus said, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves...I am among you as one who serves." The word that is commonly translated for us as "Gentiles" is a Greek word that means "nations" or, more simply, "others." Perhaps said another way, then, Jesus tells them, "Other leaders prefer to be masters, but you must be servants because I am one who serves." Doesn't that make sense? If we are following the one who came to serve others, mustn't we be servants, too?

One summer when I was at camp, the boys in our age group lined up for Sunday-night dinner. When the bell rang, we raced toward the kitchen, knowing that everyone would get the same thing but still wanting to get it first. Right before the food was served, one of the counselors told all of us to turn around, and he then led the whole group, starting with the last boy in line, all the way around to the front to be served first. "The last will be first," he said to the disappointment of those near the front. The following week, we had learned our lesson (or so we thought). When the bell rang, we all raced to get into the back of the line. Clamoring for position near the back, the line stretched further and further away from the kitchen. When it was time for the food to be served, however, the boy in the front of the line ate first. "What happened to 'the last will be first?'" we asked the counselor. And he simply replied, "What do you think that really means?"

Jesus finishes this teaching by predicting that the disciples, who have stood by him in his trials, will be given a kingdom just as the Father has conferred upon him a kingdom. It's tempting to think that those who spend a little time serving others and accepting the role of least among us will one day be rewarded richly for it, that we will become kings if we adopt a servant mentality for a time. That may be true, but the kingdom God is conferring upon us, the kingdom God is conferring upon God's Son, is not one of power, might, and wealth. It's one of humility, simplicity, and gentleness. True power, true kingship, is meekness and servanthood. Jesus wasn't on earth pretending to be humble for thirty-three years so that he could impress his Father and receive heavenly power. He came among us as God the impoverished, God the powerless, God the vulnerable in order to reveal true power and transform the world not simply by switching the roles of the rich and poor, the strong and weak, but to make this world the place where servanthood is celebrated not as a means to another end but as a goal in itself. That's who Jesus was, and that's who Jesus invites us to be. Will we follow him?

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