Reading: Luke 22:7-38
One of the more confusing parts of the gospel account for me is when at the last supper the disciples start arguing about who will be the greatest in God’s kingdom. It confused me, because even before they enter Jerusalem, they seem to know what is coming. Jesus has told them several times on the way, and in Jerusalem itself — and they have commented on it as well. The disciples accepted that this is the last trip, yet they are arguing about who will be the greatest?
While I was listening to the passage, I heard Jesus saying to the disciples that this would be the last time Passover meal he would eat with them until the kingdom of God comes. I realized that the same stoic disciples who were ready to face prison and death with Jesus believed that it was possible that they would survive, and that this Kingdom would be established in Jerusalem. They were ready to face Rome, and they were arguing about who would be placed in positions of honor if they won.
The disciples were looking at this as a pep-talk. In their minds they knew the stakes, they knew the risks, but in their minds this kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about was a new regime that was to replace Rome. They heard Jesus talking about the kingdom of God coming before their next meal together, and they were ready to daydream what their positions would be in the new Kingdom. Now a couple thousand years later many things seem obvious that the disciples missed.
Sometimes, I think that the disciples, especially Peter, told stories about themselves to let everybody know how dumb they were, and how they missed things that are obvious; other times I think that if I were one of the disciples, it would be no more obvious to me than it was to them; it is only obvious because I’ve been taught how to understand these stories. Sometimes, I wonder if I fall back on what I know so much that I am missing something that should be obvious to the disciples.
I would never think that Jesus was talking about replacing Rome when he talked about God’s kingdom — but, I also say the Lord’s prayer so quickly that I don’t think about what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” I don’t often give a second thought to what John the Baptist and Jesus meant when they preached that God’s kingdom is at hand. If the disciples erred by thinking they would see God’s kingdom overthrow Rome, perhaps I err thinking that this kingdom only comes in the next world.
What I do know is that when the disciples are arguing about who will have the greatest honor, Jesus needs to correct them. The disciples want a new kingdom to replace Rome, but they are not looking for a kingdom that is substantially different than the kingdoms of this world. God’s kingdom is different — Jesus had spent his entire ministry trying to explain how his kingdom is different, but it is hard to imagine different. Can we imagine a kingdom where the greatest is like a child? Jesus at this point tells them that the greatest in God’s kingdom will be the one who serves — because God’s kingdom is different.
In this — I think we do make the same mistakes the disciples make. People talk about doing great things for the church and for God, people brag about what they accomplish, we have leadership seminars, people in my position want to be recognized for our wisdom. We mistake fame and recognition from this world for faithfulness. We mistake being rewarded by the kingdoms of this world for God’s blessing. We forget that Jesus said that the greatest in God’s kingdom is a servant to everybody, and that those who are first here will be last in God’s kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is different enough that we don’t get it any more than the disciples did.
The disciples are arguing about who will be the greatest, and Judas runs off to arrange the sale of Jesus. Peter promises that he will die with Jesus — and, if we jump forward he makes it further than the other disciples — but Jesus tells him that he will deny him this very night three times.
Jesus speaks directly too — he tells the disciples that one of the number will betray him. Jesus also tells Peter, directly, that he will deny Jesus three times. If the disciples were thinking that this was a pep talk when he said that this would be the last time they ate and drank together before the Kingdom of God, this sort of talk would be quite confusing. The certainty that God’s kingdom is coming combined with betrayal, cowardly behavior, and a suggestion that Jesus would be arrested. The disciples, looking for an Earthly kingdom must have not seen how both of these things could be true.
I guess the things that I learn the most from this is that like the disciples, I really need to look at my expectations and ask if they match what Jesus taught about God’s kingdom. I see how wrong the disciples are, and how long they were wrong, and I have to admit that even with all my advantages, I too might be mistaken. It is so easy to expect that God’s standards are like the world’s standards — I’ve never lived in heaven, so the world is what I know the best.
Another lesson that I learn from this is that God is very patient with His people. The disciples seemed to get everything that Jesus said wrong — whatever lesson Jesus was trying to teach, Peter or another disciple would say something that would make it clear that they didn’t understand the point at all. Jesus kept working with His students, and never gave up trying to get them to learn.
It becomes clear that when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t give out a test to make sure that the disciples had some background knowledge; he was more than willing to take remedial students. Too often, we act like God is impatient with human ignorance, we act like we can’t approach God until we understand God, because God will be offended. If we are like the disciples, then God calls us when we know nothing, and even after following Jesus for years, there are still things we don’t know.
Jesus didn’t cast them out because they didn’t understand. God didn’t get angry because their understanding of God was limited and unworthy of God — and this is good for all of us. Rene Descartes observed that we are finite, and if we try to imagine a perfect, all powerful, infinite being, our imagination is still finite. It is not possible for us to understand God — our best theologians, being finite, fall short. If God had a thin skin and was insulted by our failure to understand His greatness, we would all be in trouble; but we see from how Jesus never gave up on the disciples that God bears with us as we try to understand.
Like many who survived adolescence, I remember the time when I thought I was smarter than my teachers and wiser than anybody who had wisdom and experience to share. While I hope that I am smarter and wiser than I was then, the most important lesson I learned through education was how wrong that adolescent fantasy was; that no matter how wise and knowledgeable I become, my ignorance will always surpass my knowledge. As easy as it is to laugh at the disciples, my understanding of God will always be far short of God’s glory, greatness and grace. Just as the disciples were clumsy and imperfect in their attempts at theology, I am as well.
The good news is that God welcomes our bumbling attempts. When we attempt to praise God, but our praise falls so short of God’s glory that a petty god would be offended; God accepts our praise for what is in our hearts. When we try to serve God, but we get God a bit wrong, God might work on our hearts and minds to help us learn and grow — but we are not cast out for our honest mistakes. We know how patient Jesus was with Peter — and by extension we know how patient Jesus is with us; and as I need God to be patient with me, this is good news.