When Jesus appointed his twelve disciples, he chose fishermen and tax collectors—everyday tradesmen and the equivalent of office workers.
None of them had received any professional training in evangelization, homiletics, or church management. But they were hardworking, sincere, and loyal men, and he knew that over time he could shape them into real apostles.
Over the course of his time with them, Jesus sensed that they were making progress. They were learning his teachings. They were believing in his miracles. They were seeing people’s lives change. But at the same time, Jesus knew that they still had to deal with some of their old ways of thinking and acting. Just like us, the twelve disciples were “works in progress.”
Here, we want to take a look at one area that the Twelve still needed to work on—their disposition toward other people. We want to look at how they could pit themselves against each other, how they could try to exclude other people from their supposedly elite group, and how they needed to change the way they looked at people who couldn’t accept them or Jesus. We want to see how the disciples’ experience can teach us and help us deal with our own divisive and self-centered thoughts.
To do this, we’ll focus our attention on some stories about the Twelve in chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke—stories that show how much progress the disciples had made and how far they had yet to go.
Apostolic One-Upmanship? An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46).
This is not the only place in Scripture that speaks about the apostles arguing about who was the best (Matthew 18:1; Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46). In fact, it seems they were arguing all the way up to the Last Supper (Luke 22:24)!
Luke doesn’t tell us what caused the apostles to have this particular argument, but if we look at the stories that come before this verse, we may be able to detect a couple of possible causes.
One possibility has to do with Jesus having just sent them out to neighboring villages on what was likely their first “missionary tour.” Luke tells us that the disciples went out “proclaiming the good news and curing diseases everywhere” (9:6). So they must have been successful!
Now success is a good thing, of course. But it also has the potential of making us too confident. Perhaps the disciples were arguing over who did the best on this, their maiden voyage. It’s not hard to picture Matthew saying: “I performed three healings and two exorcisms. And I even got four more people to come and follow Jesus.” But then Bartholomew chimed in with his report: “Not bad, Matthew, but I healed six people. Two of them just dropped their crutches and began dancing for joy! I also helped a whole family repent of their sins and believe in Jesus’ good news.” Then Andrew cleared his throat and said: “Not bad, but I could really feel the Spirit working through me. I lost count of how many people were healed, and dozens of villagers repented and believed.”
With that kind of one-upmanship, it’s easy to imagine an argument breaking out!
Apostolic Elitism? Another cause of the argument could have been the events surrounding Jesus’ transfiguration, which happened not long after the disciples returned from their preaching tour.
Luke tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray with him. So only these three were privileged to see him shining in a heavenly light and talking with Moses and Elijah. He probably told the others to stay behind and wait for them to come back. It’s possible that Jesus considered Peter, James, and John to be his closest followers—and that fact alone could have been a sore point within the group. Did the “big three” ever flaunt their special sta-tus? Did the other nine ever grumble among themselves about their brothers’ special treatment? It’s possible.
Then when they came down the mountain, Jesus and the three disciples were met by the father of a boy who was being harassed by a demon. The man had begged the nine remaining disciples to drive out the demon, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t do it. Is it possible that Peter, James, and John looked down on the others and assumed that they would have been more successful?
Of course, we are just offering some conjecture. We don’t know what the disciples were thinking. We don’t know if these events had anything to do with the disciples’ argument later on. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how situations like these might have been in the back of their minds as they began arguing about who was the greatest.
Already and Not Yet. We can find this kind of conjecture entertaining and even a bit amusing. It’s fun to imagine the disciples’ everyday lives. But we should also remember that the Gospel writers included stories like these for a reason. We can be sure that for the most part, the Twelve had become a close-knit group of men who loved and supported one another. We can be sure that they were growing in holiness as well. These stories only help to show us that holiness is a journey and not an immediate destination.
Just as the disciples still needed to be formed and taught by the Lord, so do we. Just like the Twelve, we too are prone to a me-against-you mentality. Think of how hard it can be to resist the temptation to join in a gossip session among friends. Or imagine that you have just successfully completed a group project at work. Most of us have to make a conscious decision to spread the credit around and not make ourselves shine over the others. Or think of how hard it can be for a man to take constructive criticism from his wife—and vice versa.
This doesn’t mean that our whole lives are dominated by divisive, self-centered attitudes. Like the disciples, we too love the Lord and the people around us. Like them, we are trying to do the best we can. But we all have areas that still need to be touched and transformed by the Holy Spirit. We are all in that in-between state of being already redeemed by the Lord and filled with his Spirit but not yet fully formed into the image of Christ.
Stop, Examine, and Compliment. So what steps can we take that will help us deal with divisive, self-centered thoughts? How can we avoid the kind of arguments that the disciples got caught up in?
The first thing we can do is try our best simply to stop the negative thoughts and words. This step doesn’t take any deep spiritual insights. We just have to guard our minds and our mouths. Jesus taught us to treat others in the same way that we want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). We can make this the foundational guide for all of our relationships—our enemies as well as our friends.
We can also get into the habit of examining our relationships. Try to set aside a few moments each evening to review your day. Were there times when you cut someone down? Times when you built yourself up at another person’s expense? Times when you added to divisions in your home rather than unity? If you are consistent in doing this over time, you’ll begin to detect nega¬tive patterns in your thoughts and actions—and you’ll find God’s grace in helping you overcome them.
Jesus told us: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mark 9:43). We don’t have to go that far, but we can try our best to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy when it comes to divisive behavior. And we can do this by catching ourselves before we go down the wrong path.
Finally, we can try to develop a positive outlook toward other people. Pay people compliments—especially family members. Make it a point to offer at least one positive comment to your spouse every day. Go out of your way to congratulate a co-worker on a job well done or to tell someone that you enjoy working with him or her.
Whatever you do, know that God will bless your efforts. He smiles every time we stop ourselves from saying something divisive. He delights in seeing us treat each other with kindness.
Get to Work! Brothers and sisters, there is a kingdom to be built. The disciples may have had their moments of infighting, but they learned a better way over time, and they ended up changing the world. This is our challenge as well. We have a huge mission. There is a world to be changed, and Jesus has called us to let our light shine. So let’s dedicate ourselves to changing the environment in our homes, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods. We can make a difference!