Who’s the greatest? Is it Tiger Woods or Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens or LeBron James? Muhammad Ali said: "I am the Greatest; " But, hockey fans called Wayne Gretzky "The Great One."
History calls leaders who aren’t content to live within inherited borders "the Great." They go out and risk what they have to get more. Alexander the Great was only twenty-one when he became king of Macedonia, but before he died of malaria twelve years later he’d built the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Along the way he defeated the mighty Persian empire and marched to India, planting cities and spreading Greek culture as he went. So, whether on the field of battle or on the floor of the stadium, the great ones are winners. If we’re honest, we want to be great too.
Fame can be intoxicating and we love it when people tell us how great we are. It won’t do any good to deny it – we love the applause! Unfortunately fame can be fleeting. You can win the Super Bowl one year and fall to last place the next. Alexander was defeated not by an army but by a bug.
REVELATION OF THE PASSION
Heading home to Capernaum, Jesus began telling the disciples about their future together. He warned them that death lay in his future. For some reason they didn’t hear the warning, because as the Phillips translation puts it, they were "completely mystified by this saying." And so, instead of asking Jesus what he meant they moved onto a more fruitful argument, that is, who’s the greatest?
ARGUMENT ABOUT GREATNESS
In reading about this conversation, I can’t help but think about the football player who celebrates a good play even though his team is down by three touchdowns. It’s clear that the disciples didn’t understand who Jesus was. They had their own ideas about what the kingdom of God would be like, and it didn’t involve anybody dying, especially Jesus.
Like most of us, when we hear things that don’t fit our way of thinking, they ignored Jesus and began to argue about who was going to sit next to him when he got his throne. Everyone, it seems, wanted to be Prime Minister, even though Jesus wasn’t taking any applications.
THE FIRST SHALL BE LAST
When they got to Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about. It was kind of like a parent asking the kids why they were fighting in the back seat of the car. And, like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the disciples became totally quiet. They quickly realized that their argument didn’t fit with what Jesus had been talking about.
Now, Jesus didn't reprimand them, but instead, like a good teacher, he gathered them together and offered them a different definition of greatness. The kingdom of God, he told them, isn’t like a human kingdom. In this kingdom greatness is defined by servanthood. The first will be last and the last will be first, which makes the kingdom of God the polar opposite of human kingdoms. It’s really a matter of apples and oranges, because in the kingdom of God there are totally different categories for defining winning and losing, success and failure.
WELCOMING THE CHILDREN
To get his point across, Jesus grabbed a child and placed her in the middle of the circle. Though, we don't know anything about the child, for some reason I think Jesus chose a little girl, maybe one about five years old. Now we think Jesus did this because as Art Linkletter said, "Kids say the darnedest things.” But, things were different back then. First century teachers didn't use children to illustrate their points, because children were nonentities, especially girls. You see, until a person reached maturity, they didn't count. At best they were ignored and at worst they were little more than slaves. Childhood was often horrific, with 30% percent of children dying at birth and 30% of those who did survive dying by age six. By age sixteen 60% of the children who survived birth had died of famine, disease, or dislocation. You see, it wasn't fun being a kid back then! And so, kids weren't the best examples of innocence. I mean, to call someone a child was considered a "serious insult."*
The reader of the gospel would have expected Jesus to put the little girl away, annoyed at having been bothered. But, Jesus took the child into his arms and said, "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." Jesus didn't say, isn't this child just wonderful, isn't she so cuddly and loveable? That’s how we hear it. Oh God loves us because were cute and cuddly. But that’s not how the disciples heard it. What they heard was: when you receive the lowest of the low, you’re receiving God. Now, this isn’t the way we think of children. At least in principle we value children and we react in horror at stories of abuse and neglect. So, maybe if we’re going to hear Jesus’ point, we need a different illustration. Could Jesus be talking about a homeless person? Or, maybe an undocumented immigrant? Jesus says, how we treat such a person is how we treat him, and the way we treat him is the way we will treat God.
So, what does it mean to be great? Does it mean succeeding at football or business? Are Alexander the Great, Douglas MacArthur, Muhammad Ali and Barry Bonds exemplars of true greatness? Or, perhaps someone else would be better, someone like Mother Theresa, Father Damian, or Mahatma Gandhi? We’ve grown accustomed to equating greatness with power and strength, but Jesus offers us a different paradigm. In the kingdom of God, the one who wants to be great will be a servant. Of course if you’re a servant you won't be concerned about greatness. You’ll only be concerned about the other person. And that’s the mark of greatness according to Jesus!
*Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh quoted in Tom Long, "Why a Child?" in Pulpit Resources. (July, August, September 2000): 51.
Preached at First Christian Church of Lompoc
16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2006