Which team is the greatest baseball or football team ever? Now that’s question that will start some lively debate! Or how about this one: Who is the greatest American president in this nation’s history? There is usually no consensus and in such things as sports or politics feelings can run very high. Who is the greatest? But now imagine some ten-year-olds who are playing together at school. And after a while their chatter moves around to who of them is better or more important than all the rest. Such a debate may be spirited, but it is really silly. Children who are only ten-years-old don’t really know what it means to be great nor do they have the experience to actually be anything yet, except a child who is far from greatness.
In our ongoing study of Mark, this is the kind of thing we encounter. The disciples are with Jesus and Jesus overhears their discussion about who of them is the greatest. In light of their inability to heal the evil spirit possessed boy, they were hardly in the position to be talking about greatness. Moreover, they simply did not have enough experience and maturity to really understand what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ teaching had a lot to teach them and us about what greatness in the kingdom really means. Let’s read Mark 9:33-37.
I. The great debate occurs during the time when Jesus was teaching his disciples.
Mark says that they were arguing about who was the greatest in the group. Jesus’ question exposes this heated discussion the disciples were having. Their response is silence since it was so embarrassing to them. I remember when I was in school about twelve-years-old, one of the students raised his hand during class and asked for the definition of some sexual slang term. He didn’t know the answer and someone had clearly put him up to ask this embarrassing question in front of the whole class. The teacher was quiet for a moment and then calmly said that he would answer that question after the class was over and then immediately told all the boys in the class to stay afterwards. After class, while he was privately explaining to this boy the meaning of the term, we boys sat there while nervously waiting for him to come back. When he came back, he asked, “Who told Dwight to ask that question?” I remember there was complete embarrassed silence because no one wanted to admit being so stupid and insensitive to put someone up to that.
The dispute over greatness shows that the disciples continue to simply not get it. They had just had a spectacular failure in their attempt to cast out an evil spirit. Jesus had just told them that he would be betrayed, killed and then rise again. And now they are arguing about how great they were! But this shows how totally immersed they were in the things of their own culture. In that culture such questions about rank and status were constantly arising. It was important to establish who was important or more important than others.
Our culture as well can often be obsessed with standing, status and position. People want to be more important in their workplace than others for whatever reason. People want to have a ranking in their families. After Claire’s mother died a few years ago, there was a conversation in jest between Claire’s older brother and older sister. Her brother said that he guessed he was now the patriarch of the family. But her sister said that since she was older, she was the matriarch. All was said in jest as to who was in charge, but not completely. We like to see how we fit in our families and who is more important.
People want to be important in the church. “How large is your church?” is a common question asked of pastors. And it’s not just pastors who succumb to this for members will like to brag that their church has so many hundreds or thousands of members. It’s not an accident that Paul has to lay this out very clearly for the Corinthians. We are part of a body, not in a hierarchy. Our natural pride prompts us to measure ourselves against others and Jesus will be teaching us that we must put those things aside, wherever they may occur.
II. Jesus’ teaching on how we are view ourselves is given in verse 35.
As Jesus answers this issue, he sits down to underscore his authority as a teacher to them. He said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” This was a complete reversal of how things are supposed to be for the disciples. Jesus throws out all human ideas of greatness and rank. This is the very practical application of the commandment to one’s neighbor. To show true love to your neighbor you must allow him or her to be first. In fact, to truly love, you must be willing to be a servant to your neighbor. Moreover, this gives more practical meaning to what Jesus said in Mark 8:34. Remember Jesus words: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If you want to be first, you must not only be a servant but you must also a servant who will die for others!
Jesus turns the question of greatness in status into actions of loving service. In doing this, Jesus establishes a new pattern for human relationships which leaves no room for self-glorification. And that is especially true when questions of rank seem appropriate. When Jesus does this, he is also calling their attention to what he had said earlier. For them as well, the way to glory is through suffering and death. Jesus showed his love by making himself the least and dying for the world’s sins. Jesus was the servant of all and his followers must seek to be servants to all as well by suffering and sacrificing for others.
We Christians are to serve in the kingdom by sacrificially serving others in love. But what does that look like? Next week, should we be jostling for an opportunity to do the dishes and to help cleaning up on Communion lunch? Perhaps. As we discuss things where there may be disagreements, are we to yield to the other person we disagree with and let them have their way? Maybe. We are not to be doormats but we are to act in loving service to one another. When there is an opportunity to help or to serve others, we should all be eager to help in whatever way we can. We should be striving to outdo each other in loving service to one another.
This addresses the issue of being too busy to do things in the body of Christ. We have to be careful as we consider our busy lives that we don’t slip into an attitude of “I’m too important or too busy to do those things.” When we say that we are too busy or it’s not our job, let’s ask ourselves is it because we think we are too important to do this thing? Let’s make sure that we aren’t saying or thinking that we are too important and thus greater than others so that we don’t have to serve in that capacity.
Think of the parable that Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite, godly and very busy people, were too important and too busy to help someone whom they felt they couldn’t be bothered with. Let’s follow the example of the Samaritan, the despised person in that culture, who knew what needed to be done and acted in love.
Martin Luther King said: "If you want to be important -- wonderful. If you want to be recognized -- wonderful. If you want to be great -- wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness... By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant."
III. Jesus’ then gives the disciples a visual aid in verses 36-37 to help them understand.
Jesus took a child, perhaps one in the home where they were talking privately, and placed him among them. His taking a child into his arms anticipates Mark 10:14-16, where Jesus’ love for children is shown even more powerfully. We get the impression that Jesus very clearly loved children. I can imagine him playing with them, running with them, lovingly teaching them with wonderful stories and laughing with them.
The child is placed before the disciples as an example or living parable of discipleship. However, there is even more in Jesus’ lesson for in Aramaic the same word is used for “child” as “servant.” And so this becomes a dramatization of what Jesus is saying. The disciples are being told to identify themselves as children and become the little ones, the servants, who have no ambitions toward greatness.
Jesus then says, “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.” There is a lot in this statement that must be looked at carefully and it hinges on the word “welcome.” To welcome receive must be understood in the same sense this word has in Mark 6:11 when the disciples were sent out on their mission. Jesus had told them about how they would be welcomed as Jesus’ representatives. In Mark 6:7-13 the servant or child goes out in Jesus’ name as his representative. But “the child” or servant only represents Jesus if he has been sent by him as his official representative as though he were Jesus himself. Because he comes in Jesus’ name and with his authority, he is to be welcomed.
Now this is where the word play comes into focus. The disciples are to become “the servant of all” in verse 35 and this is reinforced by Jesus’ actions in verse 36. But by linking to the identity of a child, Jesus is saying that whoever receives them, receives him and the Father who is sending him. This then leads then to the greatest honor and dignity that they could have! They are child-like servants but as such they will be received by the Father!
We are to be child-like in how we view ourselves in that we are the body of Christ and all have different roles but all are vitally important. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says that the body has both honorable and dishonorable parts but all are vital and all must serve one another in love. And if we ever think we are more important than others, we need to hear Jesus’ words here again.
We are child-like by serving others in love. I challenge you today to look for ways to do that in this coming week. What are some ways in which you can simply show loving service to others?
We begin by making sure we value those around us whom we serve. Menachem Schneerson, the famous rabbi from Brooklyn, used to stand every week for hours as thousands of people filed by to receive his blessing or his advice about matters great and small. Once someone asked him how he, who was in his 80s, could stand for so long without seeming to get tired. The rabbi replied, “When you’re counting diamonds you don’t get tired.”