We are complicated creatures, we humans.
We can hear a dogmatic statement that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and right away, we can begin competing to come last, to be the greatest server, the most abased and diminished of all servants, in order to, well, come first again.
Our motives for good deeds are rarely unmixed.
I don’t agree with Phoebe and Joey in the Friends episode where seeking for a selfless act involves finding one which brings the actor no pleasure at all. “Virtue is its own reward,” goes the old saw, and the reward may be a certain satisfaction of the soul.
Still, the idea of putting oneself last in order that one might be first seems a little back to front.
Jesus demonstrates his point by singling out a child. Whoever welcomes the child, welcomes Jesus. Whoever puts such a small, poor, uninfluential person who needs more help than they offer is heading in the right direction.
There’s something else about children, though, and that is their forgetfulness. A child can be transported out of themselves, their needs, wants and the moments of time that demand their attention by something as simple as a spider on its web, something as profound as a hole in the sand that refuses to give up the sea.
It is in our moments of forgetfulness that we come closest to putting ourselves last, for no better reason than love. It is in those grace-filled opportunities to do someone good, for no other reason than that we can, that we are blessed with the soul-satisfaction that we are serving God.
Sometimes all it takes is a moment: the instant between seeing the car and diving to pull the child out of the away, forgetful of safety, caution, self. Sometimes is takes a lifetime, practising giving up, giving away, letting others walk before you, murmuring a mantra of love, respect, release.
Sometimes, it comes to a head, and all that practice is put to the test, and a decision is made, “Not my will, but thine.” Three times, Jesus got up off his knees and tried to walk it off, to shake off the dread, to let off steam at his sleeping disciples. If Judas had not come soon enough, would he have been able to hold on to his resolve, to forget himself, to put himself last, to let them lead him away?