Pentecost 18 (2018)
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. 33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “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.”
As I was packing on Wednesday I came across an old paperback from 1973. (It has become painfully aware that I do save things for apparently no reason.) This paper back was the Guinness Book of World Records from 1973. Should have tossed it but . . . well, I do save things for apparently no reason. The book (and future editions) contains records like
Largest cowboy boot sculpture
Most teeth in the mouth
Largest hot dog cart
Tallest married couple
Some people seemed to be obsessed with records and record breaking. Just this past week Milwaukee Brewer’s outfielder Christian Yelich was the first baseball player in 100 years to hit for the cycle twice in one season against the same team. Clay Matthews seems to be trying to break the record of most roughing the quarter back penalties that could cost you the game.
It should not come as a surprise then that even Jesus’ own disciples were wondering about superiority when they were arguing about “Who was the greatest.” Not a surprise . . . but disappointing nevertheless especially their timing.
This discussion takes place near the end of Jesus’ ministry. He is preparing his disciples for a world changing event that is about to take place. We consider the text.
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
This takes place shortly after Jesus was transfigured and his disciples had seen his glory. Although he was very popular and large crowds often came out to be with him, Jesus chooses to be secluded so that he can teach his disciples without being interrupted or distracted. Modern day example would be a retreat or how some companies intentional take a media break for a week at a resort. The lesson could not have been more profound. He taught about his upcoming death and resurrection. This is the second time he teaches them but they are having a hard time grasping or wanting to deal with what he meant. It also frightened them so they avoided the subject.
But this does not mean that they weren’t thinking about things. As they considered the future, they argued behind his back about who was the greatest. (Matthew reports that they came to Jesus and asked him so it isn’t clear just how the subject came up between them and Jesus. Perhaps it was discussed several times.) For our purposes we stay with Mark’s account.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Who is the greatest? I can’t help but think of Mohammed Ali on this one. When I Googled the phrase, one of the responses was the top ten sports figures of all times. He is listed there as number 2 although he boasted he WAS the greatest.
Muhammad Ali will be a controversial choice for second place in this list as he is often regarded as the greatest sports person of all time. Ali competed in some of the greatest fights in boxing history, including The Fight of the Century, The Rumble in the Jungle, and the Thrilla in Manila. He was also famous for his political stances, and Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to be conscripted into the US military to fight in the Vietnam War. Arguably more famous than all of this, however, are Ali's timeless quotes. "Floats like a butterfly, sting like a bee", "Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head" are among the dozens of one-liners that Ali is famous for. But perhaps the quote that best sums up Muhammad Ali and why he deserves his place on our Top 10 Greatest Sports People of All Time is as follows: "I'm not the greatest; I'm the double greatest. Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round."
The disciples were not debating which of them was the best athlete but which of them would have the positions of authority when Jesus rose again and ushered in his new kingdom. They were still under the impression that the kingdom of God would be an earthly kingdom.
What would it mean to be the greatest in such a kingdom?
Ruler of largest area.
All worldly pursuits and accomplishments.
Application: Even today we may slip into some wrong ideas about what it means to be a great Christian.
Is it the one who has the most influence in the local congregation?
Is it the biggest contributor who seeks to control through money?
Is it the most talented musician, most knowledgeable teacher, most dynamic preacher, most compassionate person. We consider certain members to be pillars of the congregation and others of little or no significance.
We judge a person’s ministry based on the size of their church. I heard once that pastors of small congregations deserved to be there because they had little or no talent. This from a WELS pastor of a large church who must of at least thought subconsciously that he maybe wasn’t the greatest but he was certainly greater than others.
Well, in that line of reasoning neither your pastor nor our congregation is all that great. We may feel not only worth less than others but at times worthless.
But this is NOT kingdom culture. Jesus would often say and teach that whoever exalts himself with be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. St. Paul would later teach on where true greatness is derived from.
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” 1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
In Mark Jesus teaches by example what it means to be great in the kingdom of God.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “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.”
Our greatness does not come from what other do for us but on what we do for others. Our greatness is defined by our humble service. As an illustration he used children which were not empowered as they are now. The were considered to be the least influential of people and in some cases a commodity. Here he emphasizes humble service by welcoming them. On another occasion he applauds the faith of children and that we are great when we trust in God’s word without doubt or questioning.
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
Jesus showed himself to be the greatest but doing the most humble thing of all. He willingly submitted to suffering and death so that we would be saved. As a result, we cannot argue that he is the greatest for he alone is the savior of the world. He used his greatness to serve and teaches us to do likewise.
This teaching comes in the next chapter which shows that some lessons take longer to teach than others.
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 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.”
Conclusion: One of the problems the disciples had was comparing themselves to each other and vying to be considered the greatest. The Guinness Book of World Records reminds us that we still compare and seek out superlatives. Perhaps in the past you have compared your pastor with other pastors and will do so in the future. Perhaps you judge others based on your own opinion of yourself. Well, in God’s eyes often the greatest are those others consider to be the least.
(Empowering the child)
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.