Last place

By December 7, 2021Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

Last place, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH
September 26, 2021

Mark 9:30-37 (NRSV)1

30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It’s the beginning of the school year, and after making it through the first couple weeks of classes, you feel a sense of relief that you are getting the hang of things. The rest and the fun of summertime have now come and gone. So you are especially excited to be with all of your school friends as you gather outside to play a game. Everyone’s gathering to play touch football. It’s beautiful weather outside, all your good pals are there with you, and the day seems not so bad, even if summer is over.

Then team captains are selected and teams begin to be assembled. You wait, patiently at first, as the captains make their way through the line of kids waiting to be picked. As you see certain obvious big-shots picked before you, well, you don’t pay it much mind, at first; after all, some of them are awesome at this game. So you just wait patiently as the captains continue to pick others, making their way through another round of kids that might still be a little better than you at the game. You think to yourself, Ah, so what. No big deal. I’d probably pick them before me, too, if I were captain. Round three comes and goes, and you’re still not picked. You begin to get a bit nervous. I am going to get picked, right? Everybody will eventually be on one of these teams, won’t they?

The captains make their way through the third round, and the next, and the next one, and so on, until finally, you notice, it is only you and one other kid left standing to be picked for a team. A little perturbed that it’s taken this long for one of the captains to see your potential, you begin to doubt your abilities. You become a little sad and feel a bit rejected. Am I actually going to be picked last? you think. Well, the first captain saves your reputation for the moment and picks you next—second-to-last—just ahead of the poor soul who now gets the rap of being picked dead last. Good grief! you say to yourself. That was a close one. I was almost last, and if I was last, I’d be the laughingstock of the whole school. You don’t think so much about the kid who was picked last. In fact, you try to erase that part from your memory, instead of focusing now on how you can do better in the game. If you’re better, maybe you’ll get picked sooner next time.

Or this…

You’re having a great year at your job. Boss is psyched that your division is doing well. Not only have you met your goals, but you have actually surpassed them, in fact, you blew them to smithereens! With your annual review coming up soon, you think to yourself how great it will be to have had such a good year when it comes time to discuss your raise. The boss is going to be pleased and should have no problem giving me that raise we held off on last year, you think. So you are caught quite off-guard when during your weekly division meeting, you learn that the company at large has suffered a huge drop in market share. Your boss tells you and your colleagues, “Sorry team, but it looks like our optimism may have been misplaced; despite all your hard work, which I appreciate, we’re no longer in the top tier in our market. We’ve experienced some pretty severe losses due to the closing of our branches out west, and as a result, well, we’ve sunk way, way down in the rankings.” You are shocked. You can hardly believe your ears. Did the boss just say that? How could rankings be so low when you’ve done such a good job this year? Not only you, but all of your team, you’ve all worked so hard, and business seemed booming.

And then, you remember… you’re pending review…. the talk about your raise.

Well, like the kid who just avoided it by the skin-of-the-teeth, our blindsided business employee here was shocked about being last. No one wants to come in last place. No one wants to be picked last, to be the laughingstock at school. No one wants to have their company, their job, and their future drop down or come in last in the rankings. It is safe to suggest that no human being really wants to be last at, well, anything. With the exception, of course, being, the last to suffer, right? Not one of us wants to be the first to suffer or to struggle in life. Society seems to cultivate and even perpetuate this way of thinking. We can, at times, seem almost to be programmed to think this way, like we’re always supposed to aim for being first in line, the best, the strongest, smartest, richest, most powerful, most attractive, most healthy, longest living, and the one with the longest-lasting legacy… Well, we might consider what this view serves, or rather perhaps, who it serves? Does it serve God? Does it reflect what we know of the teachings of Jesus? Do we feel the Spirit calling us to this way of living in the world, the world the Lord God has created?

In today’s [lesson from the Gospel according to] Mark, we find Jesus’s disciples stumped yet again by his teachings. Jesus tells them a second time that he must suffer, saying “…the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mk. 9:31) The disciples do not understand this teaching of Jesus (Mk. 9:32). They are also too afraid to ask Jesus what it means. They remain silent on the subject.

Yet, when the disciples and Jesus come to Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “what were you arguing about on the road?” (Mk. 9:33) Perhaps shocked that he knew what they were up to, the disciples maintain their silence, saying nothing to answer his question (Mk. 9:34). The writer then [writes] that the disciples had argued about who was the greatest among them. After sitting down, Jesus makes his knowledge of their discussion clear as he calls the disciples and says to them, “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mk. 9:35)

Since the culture in the days of Jesus’s earthly ministry was different from our own, we cannot assume that the disciples would have received this statement from Jesus in the way we would. At this time in the Roman Empire, status reigned supreme. Society was hierarchical; it was crystal clear who was at the top: the leaders, the bosses of the town. It was also quite clear who was at the bottom of the ladder: the powerless, those picked last, the least influential members of society. At first, we might think this is not very different from the world today, but we have to remind ourselves of developments that we may take for granted in today’s world, including voting rights, property rights, and the ability to operate as equal, or at least closer to equal members of society in this country. The same can be said for people living in much of the rest of the world, though certainly not everywhere. This is not to suggest that our country or others have everything right, that we’ve perfected freedom and liberty. But rather, the point is to highlight how none of these rights were common to the ancient world under the Roman Empire, which is when Jesus and the disciples were living. At that time, to suggest that one’s status be compromised was to propose a significant and irreversible threat to one’s reputation and, by extension, one’s very livelihood. So then, the disciples’ arguing about status among themselves was not exactly like the kid from our story, who was worried about being picked last on the team. Nor was it like the business employee who must suffer through an economic downturn, which after all, might only be for the short-term. Instead, this argument of the disciples was more like people arguing who would be the true heir to a kingdom. This was no egalitarian or freedom-loving society we’re talking about here. The society of the disciples encompassed extremes in disparity – there was no middle class, but there were many, many members of society categorically suppressed as well as many who were enslaved, with nearly no hope of positive change.

Jesus’s challenge to the disciples, that the first must be last, and the servant of all, flips the Roman worldview on its head. Forget about your favored status in society, it says, instead, know that God calls you to serve God’s people, not rule over them as the world suggests. As if this would not be enough, Jesus continues in his discussion with the Twelve. After taking a child and placing the child among them, Jesus takes the child in his arms, and says to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the One who sent me.” (Mk. 9:36-37)

Again, before jumping to any conclusions, we should consider what this might have meant in Jesus’s day. When we look at it this way, we find that, under the Roman Empire, children were considered low members of the household. As such, they were not important members of Roman society as adults were. This is quite a contrast to the way we view children in the [United States of] America and around the world today. Not only is there love, understanding, and teaching of children, but we generally take great pains to see that our children are granted opportunities to learn and to grow, to cultivate their talents and abilities, to blossom, and to thrive in our society. Quite different from the view of children in Roman times.

With this in mind, we revisit Jesus’s statement. When the disciples welcome children in Jesus’s name they [also] welcome God the Father as well. Jesus is saying something radical here. He’s not speaking to an [21st-century] audience who loves and cares for their children’s every need, taking them to band practice, soccer, helping them with homework, and making sure they not only dream of their future but also helping them create and navigate that future safely and successfully. No, in this story, in Roman times, Jesus is telling the disciples that they must lower themselves; way, way, way down must their status go, to the point of not just associating with the lowest of society, but also to welcome them in his name; to grant them the status which the LORD commands. Again, Jesus calls the disciples to follow God’s will over the ways of the world.

So, what does it look like for us to live into God’s word today? What is Jesus calling us to do about this in our own lives? How do we become last? How do we become servants; servants not just of those around us whom we already know and love, but also, how do we become servants to all, as Jesus calls us to be?

Although our times may be different than the days of the disciples, this teaching is nearly as challenging to follow today as ever. Must we sacrifice much of our personal belongings to heed Jesus’s call to be last? Is it about giving away? Is it about doing, doing more to help serve those around us and those far from us? Is it about second-guessing what we think our priorities should be in this world? If we’re aiming for first place, we might ask ourselves if God is always at the center of how we go about getting to first place. Indeed, maybe we are being called to think of not only how we aim, but also why we are aiming for something, to begin with. Are we trying to give glory to God? Are we considering others as Jesus calls us to? How are we led to our goals? By ambition, or by the Holy Spirit?

All our trophies will one day turn to dust. Our worldly status will not be transferable to what comes next. No matter how we might desire to climb to the top, to reach first place, Jesus reminds us to think of God and what God has to say about all of this. Jesus calls us to love one another. Jesus put others before him. Through his death on the cross, [Jesus] has placed us all before him. He was last so that we may be first. We do not settle on being in last place because of our weakness or our lack of ability. We are called to be last so that through Jesus and with the Holy Spirit, we glorify God, and all may be first in God’s kingdom.

May it be so. AMEN.


  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.