The story of the disciples arguing over “who is the greatest,” is a well known one.
The main theme that is presented is that the disciples should focus less on their own ambitions and egos and model themselves more on the example of Jesus.
Christians have always been encouraged to, in the words of St Paul, imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1), for if Jesus is indeed ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’, as the author of Hebrews maintains (Heb 12:2), then it is entirely appropriate that we should follow his example by striving to have ‘the same mind’ in us ‘that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 2:5).
The question is what does that mean? What would Jesus do when faced with the situations we deal with?
The context in the Gospel (Mark 9. 30-37) is an internal argument among the disciples over who is the number one and then Jesus shows that a little child can provide an example of what it means to be a disciple.
Interpretations of this are often presented as two extremes; on the one side you can have people who want to be seen as the greatest in what they do.
They want respect, recognition and to be taken seriously.
These are not necessarily bad but in the extreme examples it can lead to jealousy and insecurity.
People, who want to be seen as experts, or the greatest, take themselves very seriously and can feel infuriated if someone has a different perspective and this can be seen as either a threat or an insult.
I came across an interesting statement by Henri Nouwen. He felt that he reached the pinnacle when he was appointed to Harvard University as a teacher. He made time to help in a home called Daybreak for people with severe learning difficulties:
“Most of my past life has been built around the idea that my value depends on what I do. . . . I fought my way up to the lonely top of a little success, a little popularity, and a little power. But now, as I sit beside the slow and heavy-breathing Adam [a resident of Daybreak] I start seeing how violent that journey was, so filled with desires to be better than others, so marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with compulsion and obsessions, so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, and revenge.”
This sense of the grandiose can be projected from the individual onto a wider scale: a good example is the emphasis on making certain things great again.
Greatness is defined on being the best, the most popular and quite possibly in this day and age the most financially viable.
If this is the one extreme then the other is the idea, that you should strive to be humble and always put other people before yourself and your own needs last.
Being a servant is interpreted as staying in the background and always looking out for others.
There are two possible problems with this approach: the first is that if you keep saying to yourself, “I’m always putting other first,” then you might be suppressing feelings of irritation and anger that you are not being noticed.
Secondly, you might be in a situation where you are being possibly abused and manipulated by others.
If the Christian life is simply presented as saying that Jesus wants us to be servants of others then that might not be seen as good news.
Feminist theologians have been strident in pointing out that if you are a woman in an abusive, manipulative and violent relationship, then it is extremely unhelpful to be told that this is something that you should endure as a way of being faithful to the teaching of Jesus.
Likewise if you are enduring social oppression or living under the threat of violence, then it is bad news if you are told that you should patiently endure.
“It is hard to see how encouraging that sort of resignation to evil can be viewed as gospel – good news for the oppressed. It certainly does not seem to accord with the aims of the Jesus who claims that he was sent so that his followers ‘may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).” (Notes from recent lecture in Cambridge given by Professor of Theology)
How do we find a way forward?
I think that the first thing is to say is that Jesus does not say ambition and the desire to great things is bad.
Most of us now and again have most likely felt that we want to make a difference and do something worthwhile.
It is an ambition that can lead people to give their very best and make a positive difference.
Jesus does not have a go at the disciples for being competitive.
Again it is most likely a human instinct and personally when playing sport I want to win.
When I go and watch sport you want both teams to doing everything they can to win.
The key thing is being first in the things that matter: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
To drive home the point he picks up a little child and tells them whoever welcomes a child like this also welcomes him.
In the first-century world, as you know, children were of no account. Their parents loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing.
They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, and utterly powerless.
So how could caring for a child count as greatness?
It takes a bit of imagination but it is saying that greatness is not about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead is measured by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others.
For the disciples who saw how the world worked with the Romans in charge they understood greatness by the standards of how things worked.
There are people who have power and influence and they tell others what to do and they want some of that for themselves.
It won’t be long before that system of domination puts Jesus to death, but now they are being offered the vision of something new.
Greatness can be defined by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those, the culture is most likely to ignore.
This is to all intensive purposes a description of the church in the early centuries.
Largely ignored, periodically blamed for something and persecuted and the only way it could survive was if people in the people in church looked after each other.
If we think about ourselves we can have days when we have moments when we instinctively help others and times when we are more focused on looking after number one and an easy life.
That’s fine as we are all works in progress and God’s love for us is not dependent on reaching a standard of good behaviour.
As the passage this morning is showing, all of this takes place on the journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will be betrayed, killed but after three days rise again.
Despite the failings of the disciples Jesus still heads towards the city.
Jesus still died for us, still lives for us, still loves us more than anything: For Jesus does not give up on his disciples – not then and not now – and still offers us a different vision of greatness that can lead us to imagine and work toward a whole different world.