Jesus and his disciples 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 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
I have a confession to make, and seeing as it’s a Sunday and we’re in a church, this seems like a good place to make it.
So, here it is: I am extremely competitive. You never want to play a game with me, because anything, even the simplest of friendly games will turn into a bloodbath if you are playing with me. I cannot stand losing, and I never let people win, not even children.
Which lots of people have commented to me on, especially because I have two nephews, whom I have never let win at a game of anything. We play Monopoly, and I will turn to the youngest and say, ok, so here’s what’s going to happen now. All your property, everything you have, all your railroads, your houses, all your money, that’s mine now. You gotta give it all to me. Give it to me, right now. And no, you can’t play anymore because even though you’re giving me all of that, it doesn’t even touch how much you owe me. You’re going down hard, it’s really bad. All you’ve been working for, all day, I’m going to take it now and I’m going to use it to destroy your brother. But it’s good for him, builds character.
Now, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. In fact, the world often tells us this competitiveness, this aggressiveness, this desire to win, to be successful is a good thing. I mean, you only have to look at the self-help section of the bookstore to see this everywhere. How to be more driven, more focused, more competitive.
And it seems like such a good thing, because, why not, it works a lot of the time. This is nothing new, history has all kinds of strong, competitive figures in it. This is not a plague of the modern world, this is the human condition, to want to be the best. We have this in our gospel, with the disciples, arguing over who is the greatest.
So, here’s what we have, we have Jesus and the disciples walking from one town to another, and the disciples are bickering about who is the greatest. Now, who knows what they were saying. Maybe someone started by bragging that they had spent the most time with Jesus and someone else had a story about a miracle, and the rest are all like, you didn’t really see that, pics or it didn’t happen, and then someone else has to bring up their conversion story because they were so bad and wretched before Jesus but now they have seen the light, and maybe someone else is trying to justify that they have the best, I don’t know, whatever.
But it gets to the point where Jesus can’t ignore it any more. What are you arguing about? He wants to know. And they are silent, because they’re embarrassed. Uh, nothing. No, what were you arguing about. And I can just picture them with the same face I use when I get caught doing something I shouldn’t.
And Jesus, who is not impressed by this, says to them, whoever wants to be first, that is, greatest, must be last and be a servant to all. And, as usual, the disciples didn’t get it. Jesus is throwing them for a loop, because, hello Jesus, being last is the definition of being a loser, of being the diametric opposite of the greatest. The greatest has to be first, be the winner, have all the best stuff and all that. Don’t they?
Now, it would be a really easy sermon for me to stand up here and say to you, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we imagined that greatness wasn’t about power and wealth, about fame and all the rest of that. Imagine if we, unlike the disciples, could see worldly greatness for what it is: a desperate grab for something to protect us from feeling vulnerable and exposed, an attempt to build up power and prestige and wealth around us like a dragon’s hoard so that we will never have to be wanting or lost or broken.
And, yes, what if we imagined that world? What would that look like, to be Jesus’ definition of great? I could give that sermon, and ask that question, and we could all say, well, it would look like us putting on aprons and giving out hot meals to the destitute, and it would look like all people holding hands and singing, and it would look like a Hallmark card or a Norman Rockwell painting, idyllic, beautiful even, wouldn’t it?
And we could stop right here. This is where a lot of preachers speaking about this passage will stop. And let the congregation think about the terrible things going on in the world, and how if we stop worrying about being great in terms of material things, and start being great by Jesus’ standards, the world would be changed. And yeah, that’s a nice thought.
But I don’t think I can stop there. Because I think this is a little bit deeper than that.
Because this story isn’t the story of being nice and trying really hard to do good things.
Can we imagine a world where greatness means eschewing worldly things for peace and justice and compassion for the other? Sure, we live in that world sometimes. How many Facebook posts or ads for social justice events do we see every day? How many fair trade or ethically made products do we use? Recycling, supporting civil rights, events on Truth and Reconciliation, there are lots of places where we are doing ‘great’ things. And I’m not calling down the sincere and honest drive behind these things.
But I am asking us to look a little harder. Because that simple black and white split of a world of aggressive competitiveness, material consumption, and a sinful, narcissistic society against the Christian niceness of symbolic sacrifice and solidarity is just that: simple. It misses the insidious nature of what Jesus is actually talking about here.
That the drive to greatness infects us all. Whether it’s the race to the top with the glitz and glamour or a race to the bottom to see who can be the most pious, the most humble, it is always in us to need to
outperform our neighbours. It lies at the heart of our humanity, that we want to be recognized, we want to be seen, we want to be acknowledged.
And this story, this great gospel story of Christ, this isn’t about that. Not even when we’re on the right side, doing charitable acts and good in the world, and humble bragging about it on social media.
This is about what is at the core of our actions. Giving is great, but true love, what we are called to, gives even when it hurts. It transcends the self, sublimates it, for the other. It dies to itself, loses its life for the sake of the gospel. And that, my brothers and sisters, is hard.
Imagining a world where greatness means being charitable is easy. Carrying the cross is hard. They are not the same. This is not a trivial metaphor. When Jesus tells his disciples that to be the greatest is to be the servant to all, he is not saying, sometimes or when it’s convenient or until you don’t feel like it anymore. It is every day, and it is painful, and it is sacrifice. And it is worth every second.
Because this is what a servant is: Christ who died to give us all life, who laid down his broken body for me, for you. Who knelt to wash the feet of his followers, who ate and drank with sinners and outcasts. Who emptied himself for love of us, a bunch of flawed individuals.
I am not that servant, but I want to be. And this is where Christian greatness is truly found, in recognizing that I am not what I should be, but I can be better. I can try, because I may not be great yet, but He is always the greatest.