Jesus repeatedly made the course of his life, leading toward his death, the pattern for the lives of his disciples:
If anyone wants to come with me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
This pattern of the cross reflected in discipleship shaped much of the interaction of Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke after the their confession of him as Messiah and Son of God at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-20). It did so particularly in the teachings he gave immediately after each of his three predictions of his suffering and crucifixion:
discipleship: death by crucifixion
discipleship: becoming like a child
Matt 18:1-5 (and 19:14)
Mark 9:33-37 (and 10:14-15)
discipleship: becoming a servant
After the first prediction Jesus, as I’ve mentioned, made submission to the same form of death as his a prerequisite for discipleship. He had said much the same thing earlier, though in negative terms: “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27; the parallel in Matt 10:38 is similar).
After the second prediction, each of these three Gospels include some of Jesus’ “child” sayings. For example, Matthew 18:1-5:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Jesus’ disciples brought up the term “greatest” or “preeminent,” which was a term of social standing. They wanted to know who rated the highest in the kingdom that Jesus was bringing, that is, among themselves, Jesus’ followers. Unlike our own age, back then a child was automatically negligible, of low social status — unseen, unheard, and relatively expendable. Born in that culture, the prodigy Mozart would have been an embarrassment to his family. So a child who was near Jesus and his disciples furnished the visible opposite of what the disciples were asking about. So also in each of the “child” sayings, Jesus taught, with one or more children as a visible example of what he meant, that one must assume the low status of a child in order just to enter God’s kingdom. In this new kind of kingdom, “greatness” is no longer what is possessed by those at the top but by those at the bottom. For Jesus’ disciples, “greatest” referred to the ruling class. Jesus pointed to the child and thus contradicted normal human assumptions and his disciples’ very normal aspirations for upward mobility and power.
After the third prediction, Matthew and Mark tell of an incident that began with two disciples, who were brothers, attempting to solve, in their own favor, this issue of who was or would become “greatest” among the disciples. They simply asked Jesus (through their mother, according to Matthew) for the best positions.
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it that you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
Jesus turned to them and said “You two don’t know what you are asking for. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will certainly drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. Those seats belong to the people they’ve been prepared for by my Father.”
When the other ten disciples heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You all know know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The disciples already regarded Jesus as their king (Matthew 16:16, 20, 28; 20:21), and they anticipated that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would be the occasion for him to take power. They were clearly not getting what Jesus had been predicting. The two brothers’ request was, therefore, a formal petition to a king (similar to the one at the heart of the Old Testament story of Esther — Esther 4:11; 5:1-8; 7:2-4). The words of their request and Jesus’ words in reply make “greatest” here a matter of political position in a kingdom.
This time, low social status is represented in Jesus’ reply not by a child but by the words “servant” and “slave.” He links the issue of the disciples’ ambitions to his own path toward death by referring to his death as his “cup,” his “baptism,” and his identity as a “servant.”
Jesus also speaks at the end of this story of his identity as “a ransom for many.” This is a reference to the practice of releasing important captives of war, say, kings themselves, only on receipt of a “ransom,” which often consisted of other human beings. Those who went as ransom were, of course, considered expendable by those who sent them, at least in comparison to whoever was being ransomed. So Jesus is low enough in social status to be this expendable person, in comparison to and for the sake of “many.” This is the one whom we follow.
“Let him deny himself and take up his cross”: the masculine pronouns were appropriate because the inner group of Jesus’ disciples was at this point, and only could be, entirely male.
This post overlaps with “It shall not be so among you.” And, who knows, since this topic is at the heart of discipleship to Jesus, it may well come back again.