Who Is the Greatest?

April 22, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Gospel of Mark

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Who Is the Greatest?

Mark 9:30-37; 10:35-45

          The word “great” is probably one of the most overused words in the English language. Not only do we have “great,” but we have “greater,” and “greatest!”  There were three restaurants on one city block. The first restaurant had a large sign that said, “The Greatest Restaurant in the city.” The second restaurant had a larger sign that said, “The Greatest Restaurant in the county.” The third restaurant had a small sign that simply said, “The Greatest Restaurant on this block.” Really, three restaurants in one block, that great?

So many things are “great” that the word has really lost all its significance. There are the Great Lakes, Great Britain, the Great Plains, the Great Wall of China, the Great White Shark that swims in the Great Barrier Reef. We have Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Catherine the Great. There have been at least 114 world leaders who have had the word “great” used with their names.

Folks, the essence of sin is self-centeredness and pride. A person who suffers from selfish pride places their ego at the center of their own personal universe and everything and everyone revolves around them. They want to be or to think they are the greatest. They don’t know much about theology, but they know a lot about me-ology. Now we have the ability to take pictures of our favorite subject – me! According to a recent CBS report, we are taking 93 million selfies a day. Really, are we that great?

In Isaiah 14:13-14, we read about the selfish ambition of an angel named Lucifer. Lucifer said, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” Lucifer wanted to be the greatest. But since that day, he has gone down, down, down. His pride caused his fall to earth. One day, he will go all the way down into the bottomless pit.

God’s kingdom is a reverse kingdom. In God’s kingdom, the way up is down, and the way down is up. The Bible says in James 4:6 that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Then a few verses later in James 4:10 he writes, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”

Although our two scripture stories today are somewhat separated in the Gospel of Mark, I think they both have similar messages. We find pride, ego, and the drive to be the greatest creeping into the lives of the disciples. After all that Jesus has taught them and told them, they still have the mindset that Jesus will soon be the conquering Messiah. And they want to be right there by his side when he overcomes to occupy places of power and authority. They have not quite figured out that to win power and authority in the Kingdom of God often comes with the price of suffering, pain, and even death. Would you pray with me?


As our first story opens, please remember that just a few days earlier Jesus had told the disciples about his upcoming punishment and death. Also remember, Peter, James, and John had just witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and had seen him in all his glory.

Now, Jesus and the disciples come once again to Capernaum, probably to the home of Peter. On the walk there, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest among them, somehow thinking that Jesus won’t hear them. Just think how disappointed Jesus must have been with them. Repeatedly, he has told them what awaits him in Jerusalem, and yet they are still thinking of his kingdom in earthly terms and of themselves as his chief ministers of state. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? Jesus is going toward the cross and his disciples are arguing about who will be greatest.

However, once they are in the house, Jesus, having the patience of Job, so to speak, takes a sitting position, a position a Rabbi would take when he is about to teach something important, and calls his twelve disciples to him. When Jesus asks them what they were talking about, they are quiet. Why? Because they are probably ashamed about what they were arguing. They have no defense.

Jesus teaches them that if they seek greatness in his kingdom they must find it, not by being first, but by being last, not by being masters but by being servants of all. The ambition to serve must overrule the ambition to lord over others. For the ambition to have things done for us, he substituted the ambition to do things for others.

William Barclay writes the following in his commentary on Mark: “Every economic problem would be solved if people lived for what they could do for others and not for what they could get for themselves. Every political problem would be solved if human ambition was only to serve the state and not to enhance individual prestige. The divisions and disputes which tear the Church asunder would for the most part never occur if the only desire of its office-bearers and its members was to serve it without caring what position they occupied.”

Jesus knew that if they were going to continue to be his disciples and succeed in their apostolic ministry, they would have to learn this lesson and learn it well. The Church which they were going to establish would never survive after his resurrection if there was not an attitude change in these disciples. And so, to make his point, Jesus calls a little child over to them, probably one of Peter’s children. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Why a child? Why not a woman or one of the other disciples? Because in Jesus day, men held the highest honor in society. The pecking order normally went like this: The highest position of society was a married man. Next would come a man over the age of 50, 60, or 70. Next would come a man who was young and single. Then married women with children would come first and foremost, then the widows, and finally single women.

Children held the lowest social position. In fact, in the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke, “child” and “servant” were the same word.  To most of ancient society children were viewed no higher than a slave or piece of property. For the most part they had no intrinsic value or worth. Children could not advance a career nor enhance a person’s prestige. Children could not give them things. Their fathers had sole authority over them and could pretty much do with them as they wished. And if one was not happy with a child, you could either sell that child into slavery or simply leave them to fend for themselves or die from exposure.

So, Jesus uses the child as an example of a person that needs care and things done for them. He is saying, “Whoever welcomes the poor, ordinary people, the people who have no influence and no wealth and no power, the people who need things done for them, is welcoming me. More than that, that person is welcoming God.”

Jesus is teaching his disciples that there is to be no thought of who is better than whom, but simple, open-armed affection for the least, the lost, and the lonely. Dr. Kent Hughes writes, “We are to receive all of God’s people as we do children, with no thought of their accomplishments, their influence, their fame, or their gifts, but simply because they are his children. This rules out seeking the powerful or influential for what they can do for us. This is a warning about neglecting the simple, the humble, the ordinary.”

Our second story is not that much different from the first, except now, two specific disciples, James and John, want to be by Jesus’ side when he comes into his glory. I think somehow, they believe they are the greatest because they have been part of Jesus’ inner circle. They along with Peter were witnesses to Jesus glorious transfiguration and have been instructed separately from the other disciples. It seems they are trying to edge Peter out of his leadership position.

Once again for the third time, Jesus tells his disciples about his death. Sadly, all James and John are looking for is glory. Isn’t it easy to see the foolishness and arrogance of these two brothers? And the other disciples see the arrogance as well. “What do you two think you are doing?” they argue. “What makes you think you get to be number two and number three?”

So, what are James and John up to? They want these positions so that they can sop up the glory they think will be surrounding Jesus in his new kingdom. They want his glory for their glory. But folks, don’t we do the same thing? We watch our favorite sports team on TV, and the next day we proudly proclaim, “We won!” Who is this we? What did you or I do but sit around on the couch and eat potato chips. There is nothing wrong about watching the game or eating potato chip. But it is the players that won. Yet, we say, “we won” because we want to sop up their glory for ourselves. James and John presumed to be able to tell Jesus what he should do.

Unfortunately, we hear these words even today. “Jesus,” we say, “this is what I want, so please do it.” Our flesh is quick to want what it wants when it wants it. And it wants to sop up glory. Like James and John, we seek to serve ourselves. “We are the greatest,” we say. In fact, we are born enslaved to ourselves, our own wants, passions, and desires.

But Jesus says this: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus, the Son of Man, the man who lives the truest human life, waited upon others instead of seeking others to wait on him. We see this later, don’t we, when once again, none of the disciples even moved to wash the feet of others before they began their Passover meal, but Jesus did. Jesus, who created both the supernova and the firefly and holds them together by the word of his power became our servant, our waiter, our ransom for the sins of the world. If he can do that, how can we do anything less? God’s kingdom is a reverse kingdom. In God’s kingdom, the way up is down, and the way down is up. You want to be the greatest, then you had better be the servant of all.

In one of Zane Grey’s novels about the Wild West, he writes about an Indian tribe that is fleeing in the night from a stronger tribe. The chief of the weaker tribe instructed his people to wait until midnight, and then they were going to escape under the cover of darkness.

The tribe came to a creek swollen with melted snow and the knee-deep river was rushing furiously. There were many young, sick, and elderly tribe members and the chief ordered the younger braves to carry them through the swift current. But some of the younger braves chose to ignore his order and they waded into the creek alone. The current was so powerful that one-by-one the single braves were swept away.

But the other braves who carried children or the elderly on their backs found that the added weight of their burdens kept their feet planted securely on the bottom and they all made it to the other shore. There’s a profound lesson in this story.

If we go through life only caring for ourselves we face the danger of being swept away by the swift current of our culture. But if we take the time to carry others who are in need, we find that they aren’t really burdens at all; they give us a moral stability that gives our lives meaning.

Many times, we are more like the disciples and like James and John than we would like to admit. Often, we allow our desires and preferences to hinder what God genuinely seeks to do through us. We must be willing to serve God and others.

So, are you like James and John? Are you seeking all the glory and greatness this earthly life has to offer? Or are you willing to give your life to Jesus and to be a servant of all? After all, goodness is more valuable than greatness.