“The Gauge of Greatness”

September 19, 2021

Mark 9:30–37

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 about 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.’

I wonder if every kid who has at least one sibling has held the fantasy of being mom’s favorite. Among my three siblings there wasn’t any question who was Mom’s favorite. 😊 But my mom, with grace and wisdom that still escapes me, whenever the question arose among her children would respond, “I love all of you the same.”

As silly as such childhood inquires might seem, the fact that children are compelled to ask them demonstrates a very real and important reality. We are by nature looking for status, importance, recognition, attention.

This is nothing new about the human race as the passage before us today illustrates. According to Mark, Jesus had overheard his disciples arguing on the way to Capernaum. Later he asks them “What were you arguing about on the road?” No one wanted to admit they had argued about who was the greatest. Of course, we could dismiss this as typical banter or familiar jockeying among guys who are prone to compete with each other. But to understand this exchange, a little context is needed.

The argument Jesus asks about comes right after the Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John went with Jesus up a mountain where they glimpsed his divine glory. A bit earlier in the story, Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus as he raises a little girl from death to life. Perhaps these events prompted the other nine disciples to ask questions about favoritism. Why did Jesus choose Peter, James, and John to go up that mountain for the Transfiguration or into that room to witness a Jesus raise a dead girl to life? Do they think they are better than us? Does Jesus think this, too? You know how this kind of thinking develops and can become consuming.

And isn’t that how we think? We want attention and recognition. We want to be important. We want to be the person people look up to and respect. We want to be great.

Jesus knew that his disciples were struggling with this issue. So, after asking them about their argument, and without shaming or correcting, he showed them how to be great; how to be first in the Kingdom of God. It is simple: Serve. Be last. Embrace humility.

Jesus turns our natural conception of greatness on its head. What seems nonsensical to our mind and unnatural to our heart is what is perfect order in God’s Kingdom. Love means service. Humility is a respected state. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He took a little child into his arms and said to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus lifts up a child as the portrait of how God views status. In the divine economy, power and prestige accrue as we consent to be little, to be vulnerable, to be trusting. In the divine economy, we gain greatness not by muscling others out of our way, but by serving them, empathizing with them, and sacrificing ourselves for their well-being. Whatever human hierarchies and rankings we cling to, Jesus upends them all as he holds a child in his arms.

In her memoir, The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris tells a beautiful story about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. When Thérèse was four years old, she was shown a handful of colorful ribbons, and asked to choose one. Entranced, she simply responded, “I choose all.”

The disciples at this point in the story Mark tells of Jesus aren’t grasping the reality of His generosity, sufficiency, and abundance. Believing that the divine favor available to them is meager and inadequate, they quarrel for first place. In response, Jesus points them to the non-striving, un-ambitious, open-hearted trust of a young child. As if to say: “Stop striving. Stop competing. Stop scrambling. There is enough. I am enough.”

“Who is the greatest?” is a question that people will continue to debate for the remainder of the human race. The measure of greatness always seems up for grabs because the gauge of greatness is as contextual and subjective as most anything in life. We regularly capitulate to the world’s standards of greatness: power, wealth, control, status, influence, etc. But in this story Mark is pointing to something important, something essential about believing in Jesus. God, in becoming human upended every assumption of greatness that the world deemed as definitive.

According to Jesus’ ways, greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness. And as Mark concludes his story of Jesus in the chapters to come, we see most starkly the truth of divine greatness.

But here, today, now, we are called to embody the divine kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.