THE REAL TRIP TO JERUSALEM
Jesus and His disciples are on a trip to Jerusalem today. Theirs is no parlor game however. They are in the first leg of their trip to Jerusalem where Jesus must face His destiny. His disciples do not know that, so Jesus explains to them, for the second time, that in Jerusalem, He will be delivered into the hands of men who will put Him to death; but after three days, He will rise again. There is no chair waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem. There is, however, a heavy, rugged cross, reserved for Him there. And unlike our kind of “Trip to Jerusalem”, Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem sways to the tune of an argument. His disciples are arguing who among them is the greatest.
Reaching Capernaum, Jesus inquires from His so-called friends, “What are you arguing along the way?” They cannot satisfy Jesus’ inquiry. How can they, when they are busy trying to satisfy their individual hunger for greatness instead? But the disciples fail to answer Jesus not only because they are busy but also because they are shamed. How can they discuss greatness when Jesus speaks about lowliness? How can the disciples elbow one another to occupy the pedestal of power as the Master tells them that He will be raised on the pedestal of utter vulnerability? The disciples’ trip to Jerusalem is very much like ours, a scrambling for seats of authority, for chairs of greatness, for thrones of power.
The silence that meets Jesus’ question today comes not only from His disciples two thousand years ago. It is our silence too. It is the silence of His disciples of today, you and me. And it is a very deafening silence.
What are we arguing about along the way? Jesus waits for our answer. Do we dare be honest with Him?
Exploiting our disturbing silence, as He does with His disciples in the Gospel today, Jesus lectures us about His upside-down world Kingdom: “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” A good Rabbi that He is, Jesus lectures us not with the mere use of words but with the help of the living example of a little child. He places a toddler in our midst, puts His arms around him, and says, “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
St. Matthew’s version (cf. Mt 18:1-5) of this same lecture of Jesus carries a further nuancing. In Mt 18:1-5, Jesus speaks not only about welcoming a child but also about becoming like a child. In both cases, however, it is the “child” that lends value to the teaching.
In Aramaic, the language Jesus speaks, the word for “child” and “servant” is the same: ebed. That says a lot!
Certainly, children are loved in Jewish culture. However, children are not made the center of a household’s doting attention nor are they put forward as models of ideal living. In the Judaic socio-cultural paradigm, a child has no rights and is neither a “he” nor a “she”. A child is an “it. Completely dependent of adults, a child’s place is always at the bottom. He is expected to wait on his elders and otherwise keep out of their way.
To be an ebed is to be a child and a servant at the same time. To be a child is to be a servant. But to be a servant is to be more than just to be a child. Jesus is the servant of all, remember? Jesus is ebed. Jesus is the ebed of the abadim; He is the servant of the servants. In every ebed, we meet, we love, we touch, we emulate, it is Jesus we are dealing with. Thus, whoever welcomes a child in Jesus’ name, welcomes Jesus Himself and whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the Father who sent Him. The thesis of Jesus’ lecture is very clear: Truly great people do not look down on those at the bottom of the heap. Their rule is benign because they do not trample on those whose position is beneath their own. The greatest among us is the servant to the servants. Greatness, therefore, is not measure by seats, titles, influence, or privileges, but by service, by love, by humility. He who can bend the lowest can stand the highest. I received a text message few weeks, reminding me thus, “Have you observed a rice field and noticed which heads are bent and which ones stand up straight? The empty heads are standing tall and high while the heads that are filled with grains are bending low. Indeed, truly great and strong people are humble and gentle. Giants do not mind bowing low.”
Let us forever bear in mind today’s lecture by Christ: Greatness is not about a chair; greatness is about the cross. Greatness is not about being seated in some kind of a throne; it is about being crucified on the cross of Christ. The real trip to Jerusalem is far from being a parlor game during parties. It is our life. We tread the path unto Jerusalem, the real road that is less traveled. Jesus makes the trip with us; we are not alone. But do we make the trip with Jesus? Or are we busy arguing who among us is the greatest? Our silence is deafening.