Who Is the Greatest?

Ordinary 25B

Mark 9: 30 37

Introduction

As St. Mark recorded things, at this point Jesus has begun his final meandering walk to Jerusalem. It has been made clear to the disciples (the twelve in particular) that they must learn by experience what this will require of them. It is their walk as well as his. For that matter, it is also ours: for we have been baptised into the same Way of Jesus — the Way of the Cross.

The time frame of this incident in our text is about three months since Jesus and his chosen twelve had left Capernaum, his ministry base. They have been as far north as Caesarea Phillipi, and now they were heading south to spend some time at Capernaum. We can imagine how secure and confident they felt, as they noted with pleasure and excitement the familiar landmarks around the shore of the great lake.

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 31 and 31(a)

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.

It is interesting to note again how Jesus demanded privacy and solitude for his twelve. They were his priority, and he did not have any hesitation in making a choice about where he would direct his spiritual energies.

Verses 31 (b) and 32

He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise". But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

Just before walking into Capernaum at the "top" of the lake, Jesus made a second prediction of his death. He was very focussed on fulfilling the prophetic Word, and helping his disciples to make the connection between him and prophecy. But it was a struggle! They did not understand the significance of rising again in three days and, probably for political reasons, hesitated to ask Jesus to go into more detail. This was apparently the main topic our Lord covered during their training as it is the only one which became recorded.

Verses 33 and 34

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

So, after a short pause outside the city, Jesus then led his team into home territory. When they arrived at their destination, probably the home of Peter and Andrew, Jesus entered the house and, in privacy, demanded to know what they had been arguing about.

While they had been walking in a line behind him, as was the custom for a rabbi and his disciples, he was aware of a disturbance "in the ranks". Wisdom prevailed and he did not intervene until behind closed doors. Apparently they had had a difference of opinion about who was going to have top honours and be treated like an elder-statesman in due course. Naturally when asked to state the subject of their discussion, they all felt too embarrassed to speak up.

Verse 35

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."

Our Lord obviously felt quite determined to make a rather formal lesson out of this difference of opinion. He sat down some distance from his disciples and then called them over to him in classic rabbinic style. The he responded to his own unanswered question. As with so many of his responses, it was clipped and paradoxical: a principle to be remembered exactly as he said it. If we may expand his comment, it seemed to imply:

"So you were arguing about who would take first place and receive all the honour, high esteem and personal elevation.

Let me tell you: the first will be the person who is the very best and of the greatest value. It is good to aspire to that position but to reach it there is only one way: to be the very last and lowest in positions of human honour. You must therefore become the servant of all. That means you must serve all, and this will require self-sacrifice."

Jesus is paving the way for their later understanding that if you desire spiritual greatness; if you wish to live at the very peak of human existence, then it is worth giving everything else away and going to the humblest place.

Verses 36 and 37

He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, "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."

The picture of Jesus taking a small child (probably St. Peter's son) literally "in the crook of his arm" is one of our favourites.

The twelve were talking of seniority, dignity, and kingly power over subjects and all that! Jesus took a youngster, who in that society had no status, rights or expectation of such. His formula for greatness was then spelled out:

"You are to welcome the least in society, the most ignored, the ones of the lowest value as you would welcome me. You do not have to imitate them, but I expect you to look for them, and care for them. Doing this will not help you climb the social ladder of success; you will gain no advancement in the affairs of the world. However when you do as I now command you henceforth to do, you will be doing it not just to me, but to the one who sent me. I can offer you no greater honour!"

Conclusion

The lesson is straightforward, and despite the element of paradox, is uncomplicated.

We close with a brief comment by J. C. Ryle

Let us mark the peculiar standard of true greatness which our Lord sets before His disciples. He says to them, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all."

These words are deeply instructive. They show us that the maxims of the world are directly contrary to the mind of Christ. The world's idea of greatness is to rule, but Christian greatness consists in serving. The world's ambition is to receive honour and attention, but the desire of the Christian should be to give rather than receive, and to attend on others rather than be attended on himself. In short, the man who lays himself out most to serve his fellow-men, and to be useful in his day and generation, is the greatest man in the eyes of Christ.*

Let us strive to make a practical use of this heart-searching maxim. Let us seek to do good to our fellowmen, and to mortify that self-pleasing and self-indulgence to which we are all so prone. Is there any service that we can render to our fellow-Christians? Is there any kindness that we can do them, to help them and promote their happiness? If there is, let us do it without delay.

*The words of Augustine on this point are worth reading. He says,
"A Bishop's office is a name of labour rather than of honour; so that he who coveteth pre-eminence rather than usefulness, may understand that he is not a bishop."

De Civit. Dei

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