Friday Focus: The Pecking Order
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He
did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to
them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will
kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they
did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they
came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were
you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they
had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the
twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all
and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them;
and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such
child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the
one who sent me." Mark 9: 30-37
There’s a primitive urge in most social animals to
establish a fixed order of dominance and submission. First studied in chickens,
the phenomenon was labeled “the pecking order.” Further study revealed that what
was true for chickens also applied to chimps, wolves, hyenas, horses, lions and
on and on. In this morning’s gospel, we see it also applies to apostles and it
applies to us, too.
Potentially we all have that hair-trigger “Hey, what
about me?” reflex. From birth we’ve developed extremely sharp peripheral vision
to feed our brains with a steady stream of comparative performance data on
siblings, classmates and colleagues. Consciously or unconsciously, we are
continually taking the measure of those around us. Over a lifetime of
calculation, many of us develop a heightened sense of entitlement, coupled with
a resentment of the recognition that others receive. It’s natural. We’re human,
competitive, carnivorous creatures.
And all of this is no news to Jesus. He is human,
too. One reason he became human was to show us how to rise above reflex. He’s
here to shake things up with a message of love that is totally counter-intuitive.
His challenge to us is to stand human nature on its head. In its stead: the
first will be last and the last will be first; whatever you do to the least of
my people, that you do unto me; love those who hate you, pray for those who
persecute you. Over and over the challenge of Christianity is to turn away from
the pecking order instinct and the rule of the jungle and replace them with
rules that are golden. Love of God and love of neighbor are the new paradigm
that Jesus preaches and Jesus lives.
You’d think that living with Jesus for three years
would be sufficient instruction to make the point. But later on in Luke’s
account of the Last Supper, we see that the apostles are still squabbling about
which one of them is the most important. Jesus expands on the lesson of this
week’s gospel by asking them: Who is more
important: the one sitting at the table or the one serving? And on his last
night before Calvary he drives home the point: I am like a servant among you.
On an intellectual level, none of the good news of
this gospel is really news to any of us. We’ve heard it before. But are we
living it. Or are we living by reflex, still too preoccupied with the world’s
pecking order and our place in it? Has our competitive peripheral vision made
us blind to Christ’s clear message of love right before our eyes? By the grace
of God, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles finally got
it. They understood what Jesus had told them over and over. Now it’s our turn.
Our pecking order instinct is powerful. But God is all powerful. In him all
things are possible, even changing our nagging “What about me?” reflex into a
loving “What would Jesus do?” imperative. Let’s leave the pride of the pecking
order to the chickens and humbly share the saving love of
our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.