Has this ever happened to you? You’re in room full of people, with lots of noise. You start talking to the person sitting next to you, and the two of you are deep in conversation, confident that it’s private because everyone else is talking and no one is paying you any attention. You get to the point of saying something private that you are willing to say to this person. Maybe it’s a non-inclusive joke, or your true feelings about the former President, or the real reason you left your spouse. And just as the words leave your mouth, everyone in the room stops talking and they hear what you had intended to be shared with only that one person. There you sit, in the unbearable silence with your remark reverberating in the air for everyone to take in and evaluate. Suddenly, you’re embarrassed, regretting what you had only a moment before thought you could share in confidence.
This is exactly what happened to the disciples: they have been walking slightly behind Jesus, having sidebar conversations about who among them was the best. I suspect they never imagined that Jesus would overhear, after all there were at least a dozen of them as well as the usual crowd of followers. All that the disciples are focused on is who is the greatest, who is the best, the brightest, who should be lifted up as the premier disciple. Who is worthy of being the leader if Jesus is someday no longer with them, as Jesus has been saying.
And then, there it is: Jesus asks them what they are arguing about. Suddenly, the disciples are embarrassed about something that they had been so vehemently and unabashedly arguing about just moments before. They’re embarrassed because suddenly they see their limited sense of what is really important. They’re embarrassed because they realize that although they have followed Jesus down the road into Galilee, they haven’t really been following him down the spiritual road he himself is walking.
They have been with Jesus, watching him as he travels along. They have been with Jesus when he has eaten with the outcasts as one of them, not merely as some generous benefactor. They have been with Jesus when he has healed the sick, comforted those who mourned. They have been with him as the crowds have grown, and they’ve seen opportunities for Jesus to use this to his advantage, to gain a position of power, or even a bit of financial security. And they have been with him, seeing how he has instead continued to live as a servant to God and to God’s people.
So when Jesus asks them what they are arguing about, they don’t want to answer. What was so clearly important just a few minutes ago, now, in the light of Christ, fades into nothing. They can’t answer Jesus. They hesitate. They realize they still have a ways to go before they can say they are really living the life offered to them.
It’s the same path we are called to follow today. And let’s not try and b.s. each other: it isn’t easy, and we will fall short again and again. Like the disciples, we will find that we have missed the mark. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, yet we may have times when we don’t. We are called to forgive, yet we may hold on to resentment, anger, grudges, allowing these to fester into righteous indignation, and maybe even a desire for revenge or punishment.
Then there are the daily things, the little things we don’t think about: ethnic jokes, gossipy news, the dismissing of another as not being as good as we are, those for whom we have no time to converse because we are busy with important things. We also have those times when we want to get that bit of recognition, that feeling of being at least a little better than the person next to us. We don’t think about these things because we want to pretend that we can reconcile them with our beliefs, with who we say we are. And then Jesus stops us and asks us what we are about. Like the disciples, we often find we are too embarrassed to respond.
Despite the fact that the guys are caught arguing, despite the fact that we are guilty of doing things we shouldn’t be doing, there is good news. They and we may not have understood and followed what Jesus was saying all the time, but at least we are all there with him for him to be able to ask the question. Like us, they hear the question, and in their silence, their hearts respond.
Jesus reminds us of a simple truth by bringing a child forward. He tells us that to be his disciple, we need to become simpler and more honest, like a child. If we can do that, we will be able to follow God completely, without reservation and we will become God’s agents for remaking the world into God’s Kingdom. The disciples, like us, are not perfect, but we are all of us here with Jesus in the present tense, ready to realize the power of Grace and Love.
In the Gospel of Mark, this is neither the first nor the last time the disciples are pulled up short, when what they are doing and saying is not in harmony with what Jesus is teaching them. They are human, after all. The important point here is that even the disciples didn’t have some kind of mystical once-in-a-lifetime conversion event that changed them completely overnight. Discipleship is shown to be a process, a process of following the one who calls us, a process of going forward, stumbling, falling back, arguing, disagreeing, falling short, and then trying again. This is the path we are called to walk in the light of Christ. Our path sometimes seems uncertain and dark, and we wait impatiently for some light and sense of direction. That’s where faith comes in and although faith does not make walking the path brighter or less dark, it allows us to move forward in trust, knowing that God has not brought us to this point just to drop us on our….assets.
As we try to regroup and regain the fellowship of the disciples on the path behind this Jesus, we need to look at our actions and choices. Would we want Jesus to catch us in the act? What would we say if he asked us what we were doing? This is not to suggest that God is lurking in an alley somewhere hoping to catch us in some act so He can say, “Gotcha!” This is also not an excuse for us to beat ourselves up or dwell on negative thoughts about ourselves. But if we take time to stop occasionally to observe ourselves, to reevaluate, to wonder if our actions and words are really evidence of our being open to God, we can be assured that our future choices will be in greater harmony with our mouth. We will be open to what God’s Spirit still has to teach us, about right relationships with each other and with God. We will be open to the forgiveness and grace that God offers to us in every moment. We will be open, even in those times when we fall short, that we are still in the company of Christ, still walking beside him, still intent on building the Reign of God.