May the New Year, 2024, bring us peace and progress
Last week’s post examined Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus’ disciples were a team that also had internal conflicts. Two major and somewhat related incidents exposed the conflict existing among them. The first is the dispute among them about who is the greatest, while the second is the effort of James and John to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus. Today’s post focuses on the dispute about the greatest.
The story appears once in the gospel of Mark (Mark 9:33-39) and twice in Luke (Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-27). This probably means that the dispute happened more than once. In these passages, the scripture states that a dispute arose among the disciples on which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. There is a similar passage in the gospel of Matthew. However, the disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:1-6) and not about who was the greatest among them.
The dispute among the disciples shows that some claimed to be greater than others. This is unsurprising since many of the disciples could claim to be the greatest.
Peter was Jesus-appointed leader of the disciples and on whom Jesus decided to build his Church. Jesus announced this after Peter responded to a question about who Jesus really was. The gospels record this in Matt 16:16-19, Mark 8:27-29, and Luke 9:19-21. Comparing this with the passages on the dispute among the disciples, one sees that the disputes came afterwards.
Peter was the only person Jesus explicitly changed his name—from Simon to Cephas (John 1:42; Matt 16:16). Peter was also the only person Jesus used his boat as a rostrum to teach the crowds. He later multiplied fish for the team of fishermen that he led (Luke 5: 2-10). Of course, Peter was part of Jesus’ inner circle that went with Jesus on special occasions such as the healing of Jairus daughter (Mark 5:37), the transfiguration (Mark 9:2), and the prayer at Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Jesus also sent Peter and John to prepare the meal for the Last Supper (Luke 22:8).
John, the brother of James, could claim to be the greatest as he was “the one whom Jesus loved.” John reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, and Peter had to ask John for some information from Jesus (John 13:23-24). Before Jesus died on the cross, he handed over his mother to John (John 19:26-27). John was also part of the inner circle and joined in preparing the Last Supper.
Andrew could argue to be the greatest because he was the first disciple that Christ called. He was a former disciple of John the Baptist, and the scripture clearly shows that Andrew introduced Peter, his brother, to Jesus (John 1:40-42). Andrew also brought the lad who provided the five loaves and two fish that Christ multiplied to feed the five thousand (John 6:8-9).
Matthew might argue that he made the greatest sacrifice to be a disciple by abandoning his money-yielding tax collection to follow Christ. Zaccheus, a chief tax collector, was rich, sometimes through fraud (Luke 19:2,8). Philip could argue that he introduced another disciple, Nathaniel (Bartholomew), to Christ (John 1:45). James, John’s brother, might say he was part of the inner circle. Judas could argue that the one who keeps the common money is the greatest. Simon the Zealot could argue that liberating the Jews from the Romans was the most important for every Jew. As a zealot, he was the greatest because of his involvement in that cause. Others could also argue to be the greatest for whatever reason or could support a disciple as the greatest over another.
The dispute recorded in the gospel occurred in different and unrelated moments. The dispute in Mark happened after Jesus cast out an unclean spirit from a deaf and dumb man whom his disciples had previously failed to cure. The disciples disputed who was the greatest as they entered Capernaum. When Jesus asked them about the dispute, they all kept quiet. Jesus then began addressing the dispute.
The dispute in Luke 9 happened at the same time as recorded in Mark – after casting away an unclean spirit and going to Capernaum. The difference is that Luke did not say the disciples attempted to hide their dispute as Mark recorded. The dispute recorded in Luke 22 happened at the Last Supper and immediately after Jesus established the Eucharist.
The response of Jesus is similar in all three accounts. However, there are two main patterns. The first was placing a child beside himself (Luke 9:49) and in the midst of the disciples (Mark 9:36). He then said: “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48); “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35); “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26).
Jesus’ approach was classic and strategic. First, he already knew that Peter would be the leader of the disciples and had already effectively made him so. As the leader, Peter would automatically be the greatest of them. Second, Jesus also recognised that any of the disciples could claim to be the greatest. If he had supported any of the disciples, it would have created a win-lose situation, which would have deepened their conflict and undermined his mission. A win-win situation was impossible here because one person must ultimately be the greatest. Hence, he chose to ignore the issue of who was the greatest and focus on service, which was the core of his mission and the epitome of discipleship.
Lessons from Jesus
(a)Everyone in a dispute has a point
Conflict results from a clash of interests connected to an individual’s identity. Therefore, each party in a conflict has a legitimate claim to its interest. Conflict resolution and management is all about mediation. In other words, the aim is to make each party shift ground to achieve a consensus or compromise.
(b)Seek for common grounds
Since every party has a legitimate claim to its interests, focusing on common interests is the best way to manage or resolve a conflict. This is what Jesus did. Instead of trying to resolve the problem, which would only worsen the situation, Jesus focused on a common interest. Here, the common interest was his salvific mission.
(c)Conflict transformation remains essential
Conflict transformation entails turning animosity and systems that give rise to violence into a spirit of collaboration and community. Unlike conflict resolution, which presumes that conflict is bad and efforts should be geared towards resolving the issues, conflict transformation assumes that conflict provides opportunities to learn and grow.
He used a child as a vivid example of how humility should reign. In other words, Jesus transformed that problem into a life-changing lesson for them. The greatest is now the person who serves the most. This approach reformed their understanding of greatness, making them better evangelists and leaders who do not lord it over others. After the death of Christ, Peter became a servant leader. When Jesus appeared one morning after his resurrection, Peter went to bring the net full of fish even though there were other disciples whom he led to fish (John 21:11). The pope has as one of his titles today: “the servant of the servants of God.”
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.