This morning’s Gospel reading places Jesus on the road with his disciples. It’s a story that we can relate to because it’s about three things we’re all familiar with: fear, fighting and how we struggle to be first. Mark tells us that Jesus and his posse are passing through Galilee and because he needed some time alone with the disciples, he didn’t want anyone to know he was in town. If you’re thinking that this sounds familiar, you are correct: this is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is predicting his own betrayal, death and resurrection. Even though this is the second time Jesus is telling them these things, they still don’t understand. They don’t get what Jesus is talking about and yet they are too afraid to ask him to clarify. Maybe that seems odd to us that they are too fearful to ask for clarification, but haven’t we all been in situations where we didn’t understand something but were too afraid to ask?
Math was always my lowest grade in school: I didn’t understand the formulas or the logorithms and I certainly never understood quadratic equations. I still don’t. My worst nightmare were those horrible story problems that usually involved trains: If Train A is traveling southeast at 70 miles per hour, and Train B is traveling northwest at 55 miles per hour, what color dress is the conductor’s wife wearing at the cocktail party? Those train story problems always read the same way to me! And I don’t know if the teacher was moving too quickly or if my brain was simply stuck in neutral, but I was convinced that I was the only one in the room who didn’t get any of it. In high school my algebra teacher made us stand at the board until we figured it out on our own: I spent a lot of time standing at that board, needless to say. And while she did occasionally ask the class if there were any questions, I could tell by the tone of her voice that it would be better not to say anything. I certainly didn’t want to annoy her or, worse, appear to be stupid myself.
So then, why is it that we disciples are sometimes afraid to ask questions when we don’t understand??
For some of us- it is embarrassment. We don’t want to be the only ones who “don’t get it”. We don’t want to look foolish, so we don’t ask. We don’t raise our hands or ask our questions. Some of us would rather remain in the dark than be in the spotlight by calling attention to ourselves. But on a deeper level, maybe we are afraid to ask the question, because we really don’t want to know the answer. We don’t ask the question because in fact we are terrified of the truth. We really don’t really want to know, what we suspect we already know. Sometimes, it’s easier to be oblivious- than for us to confront the obvious. It’s like the former military policy of “don’t ask- don’t tell”. We’re hoping that if we don’t ask, then God won’t tell us what we’re unable or unwilling to hear.
The older I get, the more convinced I am that at the end of our lives it’s not going to be the answers we found that will bring us peace, rather it will be the quality of the questions we learned to ask. So maybe it’s not that we’re afraid to ask, but maybe it’s that we don’t know how to ask the question. Our questions seem awkward and so we don’t voice them. Maybe that’s how it was with the disciples. Maybe they just weren’t ready to deal with what Jesus had shared about his betrayal, suffering and death. Maybe they didn’t want to understand because they were afraid.
It was on the road to Capernaum that their argument began. Perhaps they whispered; maybe they mumbled. But clearly they didn’t want Jesus to hear their boasting. “I am the one with the best talents for this ministry. No, I’m much more talented than you.” “No way, my gifts are greater than all of yours!”. Jesus didn’t say anything on the road, but when they got to the house, he confronts them, and they were no doubt embarrassed. Maybe even ashamed. They certainly realized how stupid their argument sounded. So no one spoke up. No one took ownership for the fight. What would they say: Jesus we were fighting about which of us is the best?
They knew that Jesus had overheard their bickering and their lobbying for the title of GREATEST- for that position on the top- -that place of honor that would give them prestige in the ministry. Their fighting was just another indication that the disciples didn’t get it. They didn’t really understand what Jesus and his message were really about. So they are silent and they don’t answer. And Jesus sees this teachable moment, sits down and calls them over.
This is such a comforting story because it illustrates so wonderfully how God doesn’t give up on us. Here are these disciples who are squabbling among themselves about something stupid and Jesus doesn’t send them away- but teaches them- and uses them to teach and reach others. If Jesus can use these disciples, he can also use us- in spite of our fears, in spite of our fighting, inspite of our questions. And Jesus says to his disciples “whoever wants to be first needs to be last. Whoever wants to be greatest- must be the servant of all.”
If we look around the world, we can clearly see that the challenges the disciples faced are the same we face today. Following Jesus is still a challenge because we lack understanding, because we’re carrying so much fear around inside, and we keep getting drawn into arguments about things that just don’t matter. In Matthew 25, when Jesus is judging the sheep and the goats, not ONCE does he question them on what they believe, or what level of faith they have. Instead, he just wants to know how they have served the least of their sisters and brothers by feeding them, clothing them, visiting them in prison, etc… So if we’re going to be striving to be first or the best or the greatest, let’s see how much and how deeply we can care for the needs of others. In the end, that’s all that matters.