Proper 20B – Mark 9:30-37
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Let’s be honest here. I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I’ve lived most of my life. That’s not what I see happening in much of our country. That’s probably not what most of us were told or taught growing up. Sure, we might have heard that verse in Sunday school or church and even agreed with it, but then Monday came.
For most of us, I suspect, Monday greatness is about being number one, a winner, a success. It’s about power, control, wealth, fame, reputation, status, and position. Have you ever seen the losing super bowl team dancing around Monday morning with two fingers in the air shouting, “We’re number two, we’re number two?” Probably not and you probably never will. Can you imagine a political slogan about making America last or a servant of other countries? And who wants to be the servant of all anyway? That’s for the poor and uneducated, minorities or foreigners, and those we can get away with paying less than a living wage. At least that’s often how it works today. Being last and servant of all is not what we usually strive for. That’s not the greatness to which we aspire.
If being great, holding the number one position, means being last of all and servant of all, then we have completely misunderstood what greatness is really about. And the disciples don’t understand greatness any more than we do.
“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asks them. “But they were silent for they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” Jesus didn’t get an answer to his question, only silence. It was the silence of having been caught, found out. Jesus isn’t asking for his sake but for theirs. He seems to have already known what they were arguing about.
Their argument happened on a public road, out in the open. His question, however, is asked in the privacy and interior space of a house. This is about more than a change in physical location. Jesus is moving the conversation inward. He’s not gathering information for himself but inviting the disciples’ self-reflection on what it means to be great. He’s presenting the disciples with an image and the reality of their better selves, and he’s doing so for us too.
Jesus is not saying that we should not or cannot be great. He never says that. Rather, he is asking us to reframe our understanding of greatness.
What does it mean and look like for you and me to be great in today’s world? That’s the question.
Jesus answers that question by taking a little child in his arms and saying 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.”
I want us to be careful here. Jesus does not say that greatness is in being a child and he doesn’t say that greatness is in being childlike. Greatness is in welcoming the child.
Now that doesn’t sound too difficult or challenging. Who wouldn’t welcome a little child? But Jesus isn’t talking about the child. He’s talking about what the child represents. We’ve so romanticized and sentimentalized children and childhood in today’s culture that it can be difficult to understand what Jesus is getting at.
The child is a symbol for something else. The child is a symbol of vulnerability, powerlessness, and dependency. The child in Jesus’ day had no rights, no status, no economic value. The child was a consumer and not a producer. Greatness, Jesus says, is in welcoming and receiving into our arms one like this, regardless of his or her age.
Greatness is found not in what we have accomplished and gained for ourselves but in what we have done and given to “the least of these” (Mt. 25:40), the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned; the symbolic children in each of our lives. Think about a family member or a nurse’s aide who bathes, changes, and cares for the elderly, the sick, the dying; she or he is a great one. I can’t help but think about the members of our Open Table ministry and how week after week they meet with and invest themselves in the life of another; they are great ones.
Greatness never puts itself in a position of superiority over another. It is not about me; my nation, my tribe, my people, my religion, my politics, my bank account, my house, my job, my accomplishments, my reputation, my status. Our greatness is revealed in our service and care of others regardless of her or his ability or willingness to pay, repay, or return the favor.
When Jesus talked about loving others even when they don’t love you (Lk. 6:32), doing good to those who do not do good to you (Lk. 6:33), lending without expectation of repayment (Lk. 6:34), and inviting to supper those who cannot invite you back (Lk. 14:12), he was describing greatness.
Greatness comes to us when we share with others who have nothing to share with us. Think of the young boy who shared his five loaves and two fish with 5000 people who contributed nothing but their hunger (Jn. 6:9). He was great. Last week I sat in a meeting with ten or twelve people gathered around a table at the food pantry listening to them discuss how they could better feed the hungry in Uvalde. They are the great ones.
Greatness comes when we forgive one who has neither asked for our forgiveness nor changed his or her behavior. Those who refuse to carry bitterness or envy toward another are great. When we respond to the needs of others, when we refuse thoughts and actions of hatred or prejudice then greatness comes. Our refusal to objectify the opposite sex or to join in jokes about minorities or foreigners is an act of greatness. When we overcome fear, tear down walls, and make room for one who is different, vulnerable, in need, then we are great.
Last week I heard Monica, one of the children in our school, pray that we would be kind to each other. She is on her way to greatness.
Greatness is not something to be achieved or earned. It is a quality that arises within us when our lives are in balance and we step into our better selves. That’s the life Jesus offers us. That’s the life I want to live. I want to be great, don’t you? This kind of greatness happen in the simple, ordinary, and mundane. It often goes unnoticed and unnamed but its there. Greatness is always a choice set before us.
You know what day tomorrow is, right? It’s Monday. Jesus will set Monday’s child before us. And Monday greatness will tempt and call us. But there is another greatness, the greatness of the last and the greatness of the servant of all.
I wonder who the child is that Jesus will set before us. I wonder which greatness you and I will choose.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Let me know how your Monday goes.
Read the second half of this gospel story and the accompanying sermon – First, Do No Harm – A Sermon On Mark 9:38-50.