Jesus is really challenging his followers to reconsider the cultural ‘wisdom’ of his day! His was an “honour and shame” society, and “humility” was definitely not the “in” word! But this is what Jesus urges his disciples to embrace: a willingness to serve others, rather than to compete for more “honour.”
My brother deacons and I have a special fondness for the word “servant” used in this Gospel (Mk 9:35), because this is from where our word diakonos or “deacon” comes. A “servant” is one who obeys and humbly accepts a servant relationship with all humankind. But this is not limited just to Deacons! ALL Christians are called to be “servant,” just like Christ. This is what real and true Discipleship is all about. To “obey” means to “listen” (Lat., obedire), to be open to anything that God might ask you to do to build up the Body of Christ. It means submitting and consecrating your will to Jesus Christ. To be “humble” means to live with a spirit of respect, putting your gifts and talents at the disposal of others, rather than striving for privileges or recognition.
So when Jesus chose to identify himself with a young child as an example of what he meant by “servant,” it was a radical break with the cultural expectations. Children had no legal status, no honour, and no rights whatsoever. The message was clear: if you want to be a Disciple of Jesus, and agree to his life of obedience and humility, then you will be risking – even anticipating – being ignored, despised, and maybe even attacked (1st Reading: Wis 2:12,17-20). But with Jesus as our role model, what else could you expect? No one is greater than his Master.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the first “obedience” is that of faith: to “listen” and freely submit to the word of God. Jesus and Mary are our perfect role models in this regard. So, “humility” is the virtue that avoids inordinate ambition and pride and self-will.