Greatness in the Kingdom
July 21, 2019
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Prayer of Illumination:
Lord God, the word you spoke 2000 years ago is still relevant today. Give us ears to hear it and hearts to that can receive that word so that we may be transformed into the image and likeness of your Son. In Christ. Amen.
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” That was Muhammad Ali before his infamous fight with Sonny Liston. Within two minutes, Ali had knocked Liston to the ground and the fight was over at 2:12. It was one of the fasted knockouts in the history of boxing.
Ali could say he was the greatest because he had beaten every opponent he faced except for one bout early in his career with Sonny Brooks. He was great because he was successful, because he had power, because he had the ability. That is a truly worldly definition of great. Great is power, prestige, and authority by the world’s definition. But in this passage, Jesus gives a radically different definition of greatness. He says that greatness is service others, even the most insignificant.
Greatness in the World
Jesus and the disciples are making their way back toward Capernaum from Caesarea Philippi near the border with Syria. And on their way back, the disciples were arguing amongst themselves. I imagine Jesus walking and the disciples clustered ten or fifteen feet behind him debating and arguing. When they get to the house, Jesus asks what they were arguing about on the road.
Silence. The disciples are ashamed. They don’t want to answer the question because they know that Jesus will disapprove of the argument. They were arguing about who was the greatest amongst them. Maybe Peter, James, and John started the argument. They got a glimpse of Jesus’ eternal glory on the mountain top. Can’t you just imagine that they might have said something like, “Jesus took us to the mountain with him. And we got to see something you didn’t. So we’re better than you. We’re greater in the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe that’s how it started.
Or maybe it started with the demon-possessed boy that nine of the disciples couldn’t cast out. Maybe they were talking about it when someone said, “If I were there, I would have cast the demon out of the boy.” To which someone would respond, “No you wouldn’t. I’ve cast out ten times as many demons as you have. I’m better than you. I’m greater in the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe it was that. Or maybe it was none of those things and something entirely different. In any case, the disciples were arguing amongst themselves who was greater.
Jewish culture at that time was often concerned with who was greater. Many rabbinic writing of the time are about who is the greatest. The rabbis would write and argue that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven would sit closer to God than even the angels at the Messianic feast. To sit near the host was a great a honor.
We see that today most often at weddings. At weddings, the bridal party will often sit together at one end of the room. The bride and groom are often placed in the middle of the table. Next to the bride and the groom are usually the best man and the maid of honor. Then the tables nearest the bridal party are the families. And usually the further away from the bride and groom someone sits, the less honored they feel. They aren’t considered as great as the ones nearer.
The rabbis were saying that when the Messiah comes, the ones who are seated nearest to him at the feast are the greatest ones. They’re the ones of greater importance than everyone else. There are plenty of rabbinic writings that talk about that.
Now that type of thinking wasn’t just isolated to the rabbis. The Pharisees thought that they were greater than those who weren’t part of their movement. Those who weren’t in the Pharisaic movement weren’t considered to be as holy and righteous, therefore they weren’t considered to be as great.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who both go to the temple to pray. The reason Jesus told that parable is found in verse 9 of Luke 18. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” The Pharisees thought they were righteous. They were the ones who were serious about following the Torah and the commandments of the elders. They were the ones who were serious about God. Therefore, they were the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And as the greatest, they could treat others with contempt. As the ones who would sit nearest to God in the Messianic feast, they would look down on others and treat them as servants. They especially thought that about tax collectors and sinners.
Even today, contemporary culture is concerned with greatness. We look at those who have been successful in business and we consider them great. We look at those who are professional athletes and have the ability to turn the game on its head great. We look at those who are powerful and we consider them great. If you turn on sports radio or TV, they are constantly talking about who is the greatest. During football season, they’re talking about whether or not Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. They debate whether or not the Patriots are the greatest football team of all time. They consider Tom Brady to be the greatest quarterback of all time. Why? Because they’re successful. They win. And they keep winning.
Or we look at business men like John D. Rockefeller and think he’s great. Rockefeller was one of the first millionaires in American history. He made millions with oil and railroads. So we think of him as a great man because of his successes. Or we think someone like Jeff Bazos is great because of his company Amazon.
These people who meet this definition of success are often treated differently than the rest of us. Sometimes they expect it and demand it. I don’t know if you’ve been following the college admissions scandal but this is what was behind that. They thought, “We’re actors, we’re musicians. We’re successful. We’re the ones who are considered great. So the rules don’t apply to us. Because we are great, we can get preferential treatment.”
And this mentality often seeps into the Church. In the next chapter, Jesus foretells of his death for the third and final time. Immediately afterwards, John and James ask if they can sit at this right and left hands in glory (Mark 10:37). They are saying, “We want to be great. We want power, authority, prestige, and honor.
The disciples continued to think about greatness as power, authority, success, and honor even until the night Jesus was betrayed. John tells us in his gospel that before Jesus institutes the sacrament of Eucharist, he takes off his outer garments, he wraps a towel around his waist, and he begins to wash the feet of the disciples. Why? Why would he do that? The disciples were almost certainly arguing about who was the greatest and who wasn’t. And the one who wasn’t the greatest would be the one to wash the feet of everyone.
This idea of greatness didn’t stop when the biblical canon was closed at the end of the end of the first century. This didn’t stop being a problem then. We still continue to argue about who is more successful, about who is more powerful, about who is greater. Sometimes we see this when someone is asked to head a committee or to be in charge of something. A person is asked to head a committee and they start to think they are greater than those who weren’t asked to head the committee. They start to act unilaterally or that they have more power than others.
Sometimes we think that bigger churches are greater than smaller churches. We think, “If someone is a pastor at a big church, they must be a better pastor than the one at the smaller church. If someone is pastor of a big church, they must be a better preacher than one at a small church. That bigger church must be greater than the smaller church.”
As we think that about the pastor of the big church, we inevitably think that they are more successful, that they have more power and say than a small church. Sometimes us pastors think that as well.
When asked the question, the disciples are silent. They know that Jesus will not approve of their discussion. They probably know that Jesus doesn’t approve of defining greatness that way. If that’s not how Jesus defines greatness, then how does he define it?
Greatness in the Kingdom
And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Jesus defines greatness as serving others, even the most insignificant. We’re not told how Jesus knew what the disciples were arguing about, but this is Jesus. Jesus is fully God and fully man. As the divine, he is privy to our innermost thoughts and desires. He tells his disciples that greatness in the kingdom of heaven is being willing to serve others. Jesus has just flipped the worldly notion of greatness on its head. The world says being great means having authority, power, and prestige. Jesus says being great means serving others.
The word here for serve is diaconos, we get the word diaconate from it. It was the word used for someone who waited tables or someone who washed the feet of the master of the house. This is not prestigious. This is not a position of power. This is not authoritative. It is subservient. And this is how Jesus defines being great.
Jesus doesn’t just say that greatness is serving others, he lived it. He was the living definition that greatness is being willing to serve others. In Mark 10, Jesus says that the Son of Man came to serve not to be served. Jesus is God-incarnate, he is the second person of the trinity, and his entire purpose in coming was not to be served but to serve. Jesus is completely and totally equal with God the Father. Yet he willingly took on human form, he willingly became a servant to the Father, so that the plan of salvation could accomplished. Jesus willingly submitted himself to the law. He willingly submitted to the will of the Father in being crucified.
Why? Because that was the plan. The plan from all eternity was that God would redeem his people out of sin and death. And the way he was going to do that was by willingly submitting to the death himself on the cross. Jesus came to serve as both our high priest and our sacrifice. That was the plan.
And those who follow after Jesus as his disciples are called to serve just as he served. We are called to be willing to serve in the lowest and the most unglamorous jobs.
“The world’s idea of greatness is to rule, but Christian greatness consists in serving. The world’s ambition is to receive honor 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. In short, the person who puts most effort into serving other people, and in being useful in the present time, is the greatest in the eyes of Christ.”
At the end of my first year of seminary, I was an intern at the church I grew up in. While I was there, one of the weeks was T-Zone. T-Zone is a yearly weeklong service project in Columbus. A dozen or so churches would come together for a week where they would serve various communities in Columbus. The churches would stay together in the church building I grew up in; boys in one part of the building, girls in another.
One night, just as I was about to fall asleep, one of the boys ran into the room I was in and said the floor was wet and smelled. One of the adult chaperones and I walk into the room, turn on the light, and find that one of the septic lines had blocked and all of the waste that was in the line was coming out into the room through a drain in the floor.
We quickly got the boys out of the room and put them in another room. And as I was calling maintenance, the adult chaperone quietly got out a mop bucket and began mopping up the liquid poop. He didn’t complain. He didn’t say that this was beneath him. He simply served. That is how Jesus defines greatness.
To drive the point home, Jesus “took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’”
Often when we read this, we think Jesus is making a point about humility. He isn’t. He is driving home the point that we are to serve even the least. In our culture, we think of children as shining examples of goodness, purity, and innocence. Traditional cultures do not. In traditional cultures, like what we find here in Bible, children were viewed as a nuisance. Children had not social value. Children can’t work, they aren’t self-sufficient. They are completely and utterly dependant on others. They are certainly the least.
Sometimes we read this and we think, “We are supposed to be like that child and sit in Jesus’ lap”. That misses the point. Yes we should walk with Jesus. Yes we should listen to him. But that is not the point of this action. We are to be like Jesus in embracing and serving the least.
When we serve the poor and needy, we are showing people that we disciples of Jesus; that we are willing to serve the least just as he has served us. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, do all of these acts of service we display a Christ-likeness that only comes from being transformed by him.
Are you willing to serve or is it beneath you? Being a disciple of Christ means that you serve just as he served. Serve your family, serve the church, serve your neighborhood, and serve the most vulnerable. We understand the first three easy enough. But serving the least and most vulnerable is often not as easy to see. The bible defines the least and the most vulnerable as the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. Those four groups are the most easily marginalized and maligned by societies.
As disciples of Christ, let us care for them. They are the least and the most vulnerable. Let us help the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. Some will say that we shouldn’t, that they don’t deserve it; that they made their bed and they should lie in it. We didn’t deserve the salvation found in Christ Jesus. We had made our bed and it was death. And in spite of how we continually reject and rebel against God, he came and redeemed us. So someone not deserving help is not an excuse for us not to care for and serve the least and the most vulnerable. Let us care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. Let us serve them as Christ has served us.
Dan Cathy is the president and CEO of Chick-fil-A. One of the most popular restaurant chains in America. It is successful, popular, and delicious. By many standards, he is a great man. Earlier this year, he was meeting with one of my favorite preachers. The two of them got lunch, but not at Chick-fil-A. The two of them went into the restroom to wash their hands before lunch. The restroom was a mess. Water lying all over the sink, splotches of soap, paper towels everywhere. After washing their hands, Cathy started cleaning up. He dried up the water, scrubbed the soap, and picked up the towels.
The pastor asked Cathy why he was cleaning up a restroom to a restaurant he didn’t own. Cathy responded that he taught all of his employees to serve God by making every place they are in cleaner. And even though he is the head of a major company, he is not above cleaning up the restroom of one of his competitors.