This may be the strangest episode of all.
It’s not that the disciples were bickering. That happens all the time. Get a group of people together—any group of men or women—and soon they will start jockeying for position. We live in a dog-eat-dog world. You’ve got to look out for number one, climb to the top of the heap, and don’t look back because someone might be gaining on you.
Somewhere I picked up a cartoon that shows a man driving in his car on the expressway. The caption reads, “At 20, I couldn’t wait to get on the road. At 30, I learned how to go from 0 to 60 in eight seconds. At 40 I found that I’d been holding the map upside down and at 50, I discovered I had the wrong map altogether.”
That’s the story of an entire generation. My generation. The Baby Boomers. We were told, “Get up early, work hard, climb to the top, step on people if you have to, look out for number one, do it now.” Then when we got going about 150 miles an hour, we found out, to our utter dismay, the map was upside down. What we were looking for was in exactly the opposite direction.
So here are the disciples, gathered with the Lord in the Upper Room. In just a few hours, Jesus will be denied, betrayed, tried, beaten, scourged, humiliated, and then crucified. What do the disciples do? They start arguing about who among them is the greatest. But that’s not the worst of it.
This argument about “Who’s the greatest?” breaks out after Jesus shares the bread and the cup with his men. That’s almost unbelievable.
Or maybe not.
Holy moments don't last forever. Soon enough the flesh rears its ugly head. We do the same thing when we leave a worship service deeply moved by a sense of God’s presence and then get into an argument in the car on the way home. As James 3:9-10 reminds us, with the same tongue we bless God and we curse others. How quickly we turn from holiness to bitterness, from gentleness to contention. We pray and recite our memory verses, then we wound those we love most with unkind words.
Rather than indict the apostles, I simply observe how human they are. After sharing in the sacred emblems of the body and blood of Jesus, they begin to bicker about who is the greatest among them.
J. C. Ryle has an apt word about this sad state of affairs:
If we truly want to be like Jesus, then we will take his words to heart: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Rather than rebuke them for their selfish ambition, he calls them to a higher standard.
When I read this story, I remember the words of that old spiritual:
“It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer
Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.”
Lord Jesus, when I am tempted to claim a higher place, remind me that you weren’t ashamed to become a servant and wash my dirty feet. Amen.