“On the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34).
How do you imagine that argument went? Today’s gospel (Mark 9:30-37) doesn’t tell us what the disciples said but it’s not difficult to imagine. We need only recall the times we’ve argued about and striven to be the greatest.
- Maybe Simon or Andrew started it by claiming that one of them is the greatest because they were the first disciples called (Mark 1:16-17) and seniority matters.
- Maybe Peter argued that it should be him because he’s the only who correctly answered Jesus, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Being right and having the answers should count for something, right? And maybe the others countered, “No way is it you, Peter. Jesus rebuked you and called you Satan. That’s not so great.” (Mark 8:33)
- Maybe Peter, John, and James said it was one of them because they got to go up the Mount of Transfiguration and the others didn’t (Mark 9:2). Besides that, those left behind ones couldn’t even cast out a demon from a young boy (Mark 9:18). Shouldn’t the greatest be successful?
- Maybe Peter touted himself as the greatest because he walked on water (Matthew 14:28-30). I imagine the others rolling their eyes and saying, “Yeah, and you sunk like the rock that you are.” (Mathew 14:30) After all, the greatest is only as good as his or her last accomplishment.
- And I’ll bet it was an eleven to one vote against Judas. They all knew he was a thief (John 12:6). Morals are important to greatness. (At least we say they are.) It’s lucky for Peter and Judas that when the argument took place they had not yet denied or betrayed. That’s not what the greatest disciple would do.
- Maybe John argued that he was the greatest because he was the beloved disciple who laid his head on Jesus’ breast (John 13:23-25). The greatest are always well placed and connected in high places.
- And what about those other disciples who are not quoted in the gospels and have no gospel named after them? It couldn’t be them. Surely, the greatest disciple would at least be published.
I can easily imagine each disciple making a case for his own greatness and a case against the greatness of the others. Do you know why that’s so easy for me to imagine? Because it’s often the conversation I have in my head with myself. Maybe you do too.
It seems we are always establishing pecking orders of greatness. Look at the pecking orders in our world and country today. They are all around us. We live with and participate in them even if we did not create them.
Citizens are greater than resident aliens who are greater than illegal aliens. The educated are greater than the under or uneducated. The rich are greater than the poor. The employed are greater than the unemployed. English speakers are greater than non-English speakers. Men are greater than women and straight people are greater than gay or lesbian people. White or light skinned people are greater than dark skinned people. The gifted and talented student is greater than the student in shop class. Christians are greater than Jews who are greater than Muslims. And the list could go on and on.
I wonder what pecking orders govern your and my life today. Who are the winners and losers in those pecking orders? In what ways are you and I striving for greatness? What arguments or conversations about who is greatest are we having with ourselves or others?
I obviously don’t know what the disciples said or how their argument about greatness really went but I’m convinced it did not bring out the best in them. Striving to be and arguing about who is the greatest rarely brings out the best in us. That may just be the greatest humanitarian crisis in our world today. We strive to be the greatest human being instead of bringing out the best in our humanity.
But what if we have completely misunderstood what greatness is really about? What if Jesus is reversing everything we thought we knew or had been told about greatness?
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That’s how Jesus understands greatness. Last place? Really? I don’t think I’ve ever argued about or striven to be in last place. Have you? Last place is the last place I want to be and I suspect that’s true for you too.
What if greatness in Jesus’ mind is not about how much we have or what we have accomplished, but about what we’ve offered and done for others? What if greatness is not about the position or place we occupy, but about the space and place we offer others?
What if we stopped arguing about and striving to be the greatest, and we sought to discover or recover and bring out the best in ourselves and each other? What would that look like in your life today?
Here’s another way of getting at that. Who is the best person you’ve ever met? I am not asking about the greatest but the best. Why did you pick her or him? What qualities or characteristics make her or him the best?
I’m guessing it wasn’t their fierce competition or their indifference to the well being of another. I doubt it was because of the position they hold or their reputation. And it probably wasn’t because they praised you or told you what you wanted to hear. And chances are it wasn’t because they were rich, powerful, or successful. And I’ll bet you didn’t review his or her resume before naming them as the best person you’ve ever met.
I’m betting it was because of her or his authenticity, honesty, and integrity. What you saw is what you got. You could count on them. They had your back. They were there when you needed them. They saw you, respected you, and listened to you. They took your life as seriously as and sometimes more seriously than their own.
They spoke truth even when it hurt because they cared about you. They saw more in you than you often saw in yourself. They believed in you and committed themselves to you. They offered wisdom and insight into your life that was more than just telling you what to do. They cared and made a difference.
They enlarged your life and world. They inspired you. They were your strength, hope, and faith when you were weak, despairing, and unbelieving. They made space and place for you in their life. They made you feel that you were important and mattered to them.
They loved and accepted you. They didn’t judge, compare, or compete. They forgave you. They freed you from the pecking orders of your life and world. They brought out the best in you.
The bottom line is that they put your life and well being ahead of their own. They called you into your better self. They helped you recognize the way you want to be and live and if you already knew this they helped you remember when you had forgotten.
What about you and me? I wonder what others are saying about us. Are you and I the best person someone has ever met or are we just arguing about our greatness?
Jesus is always naming and calling forth the best in us. For God’s sake, for the sake of the world, for the sake of ourselves and one another, let’s stop arguing about who is the greatest.
If you were to be the best person someone has ever met, what would you want them to say about you? What qualities or characteristics would you want them to describe? Pick a couple things or ways you would want to be. How are you going to become that? What parts of your life need strengthening in order to become that and what parts need changing in order to become that?
What would it take today to offer another the very best of yourself?