Biblical Themes :
(Who Is The Greatest ?)
Mark 9: 30 - 37 They left that place
and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were,
because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is
going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three
days he will rise." But they did not understand what he meant and were
afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house,
he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they
kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be
first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." He took a little
child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them,
"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and
whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."
Don't you sometimes feel sorry for the disciples? There is something so
powerful and charismatic about Jesus. They want to be part of his inner circle.
They want the power and authority they think that being one of his close
followers gives them. Each one wants to be greater than the others. They
quarrel about it, like children squabbling in the playground about who is going
to be leader of the gang. Each one wants to be the top-dog, the chief disciple.
Do we recognise anything from our own experience here?
There seems to be a constant need in the human psyche to be the most
important. It was evident in Jesus' time and it is equally evident today - all
around us are examples of people obsessed with being the richest, the most
powerful, the most beautiful. Just this week in "The Scotsman" there
has been a list of the top earners in Scotland. Why? To satisfy curiosity? To
breed envy? To entertain? I don't know - it's beyond my understanding.
This is not just a secular phenomenon - it pervades the Church itself.
Ministers compete with each other in terms of the number of bodies in the pews
on a Sunday, or the offerings given by the congregation, or the amount spent on
the church buildings. What about the service that the Church and its people
give to their local community, to the wider world, and to each other?
Jesus' response to the disciples' quarrel was to explain his version of
greatness. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of
all." He provides a living example of what he means. He takes a child,
puts it right in their midst, and says, "Whoever welcomes one such child
in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who
To understand the full force of Jesus' words and actions we have to remember
that in the society of that time children had no status, no place in the
community. The fact that Jesus chooses a child to illustrate this fundamental
tenet of his new community is powerful and shocking. Jesus uses the child as an
example, but he is including all other marginalized and disenfranchised people.
They too must be brought into the circle, they must be served by those who call
themselves disciples of Jesus.
The disciples' response to this we don't know. But how do we respond? Are we
challenged by the nature of the service Christ requires of his disciples? Are
we disturbed and surprised by this new understanding of "greatness"
we need to assume if we are to be his followers on the way to the cross?
One person who did accept it was Martin Luther King Jnr. "That's your
new definition of greatness," he said. "It means that everybody can
be great. Because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree
to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And
you can be that servant."
Greatness is derived not from the power you have over others. It is derived
from the way you serve those you are called to lead. Service is the measure of
greatness in God's kingdom.
We can ignore this radical gospel imperative that in order to be first in
God's kingdom we must be servants. We can pretend it doesn't really apply to
us, or that we are already doing all we can. Or we can embrace it - as Jesus
embraced the little child. We can commit our lives to the radical way of
discipleship demanded by Jesus - leave our pretensions to power and glory
behind, and come ready to serve him who left his power and glory behind, who
came "not to be served, but to serve", and who gave his life that we
might have life in all its fullness.
Let us accept and live this radical definition of "greatness",
learn what it is to be part of God's upside-down kingdom, learn that to serve
is to be great, and remember that all we need in order to serve is "a
heart full of grace and a soul generated by love." Amen.
| Rev Fiona Hutchison
, October 2003
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