33 They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?” 34 The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest. 35 He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” 36-37 He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”Mark 9:33-37, MSG
A friend recently shared with me an interesting interpretation of this passage. We might often assume that the disciples were arguing about “who among them was greatest” in terms of righteousness or value or usefulness in aiding in the coming of the Kingdom or whatever.
Perhaps, though, they were instead simply discussing how they should organize themselves. Should there be a “chief apostle”? Should they rank themselves in terms of seniority when it comes to decision-making? Who might be in charge when Jesus was not around? Should they organize some sort of bureaucratic organizational structure with clear lines of authority for the important work of bringing God’s Kingdom?
In other words, perhaps they were discussing the possibility of organizing a church structure of some kind.
How does Jesus respond? “So you want first place?” You want to be in charge? You want to establish some lines of religious authority? Some bureaucratic decision-making structure? How about this instead? “Take last place. Be the servant of all.”
I don’t fault Jesus’s friends for discussing an organizational structure. (I myself am a Type A personality with a strong desire for organization and structure in my life!) Authoritative structural systems are often needed to effectively organize people to accomplish goals. There is even some evidence that humans have evolved to do a better job of cooperating and achieving their goals when there is some degree of soft hierarchy in a group, someone to enforce norms of cooperation and discourage conflict among group members.
Here, though, Jesus seems to me to be saying: sure, structure and hierarchy can be useful, but how about we spend our time focusing on loving and serving others instead of arguing over who gets to call the shots.