The disciples had been discussing among themselves who among them was the greatest. Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, He placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
While they were journeying through Galilee, the disciples had been comparing themselves with each another. They were discussing among themselves who among them was the greatest – they were trying to get a consensus: was Peter the greatest among them because he was the one who confessed that Jesus is the Messiah? Or was it Andrew – by virtue of him being the first disciple to be called by Christ? Or was it James, or John?
Jesus did not want His disciples to behave like that; therefore, He said to them that if anyone wishes to be first, then that person shall make himself the last and the servant of all. He took a child, placed the child before them and said that if they receive, for His sake, anyone of little importance in the eyes of the world, then they receive Him and the Father in heaven who sent Him.
Jesus was teaching His disciples the meaning of humility. Someone once said that humility is a way of behaving that shows that you don’t think you are better or more important than other people. C.S. Lewis said that humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. But the Christian meaning of humility is more than that. According to Jesus, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
Time and again, Jesus would teach His disciples the Christian meaning of humility: it is about serving others, rather than being served by others. Later on, in the Gospel of Mark, James and John would approach Jesus and make the request that, when Jesus comes into His glory, one of them sit at His right and the other sit at His left. (Mark 10:37) Jesus answered the two brothers: “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45)
In the Gospel of John, Jesus taught His disciples again the Christian meaning of humility by washing their feet. (John 13:1-11) After Jesus had washed the feet of His disciples, He said to them: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (John 13:12-15)