Sabbath Day Thoughts–Mark 9:30-37
Who is the greatest?
If we are talking about nations, we might argue that the greatest country has the strongest economy – a chicken in every pot, a job for every worker, abundance beyond imagining. Or, it could be the land with the most powerful military: expertly trained troops, cutting edge technology, firepower that inspires shock and awe. Or, it could be the nation with the best quality of life – top healthcare, best schools, least poverty, and earliest retirement.
When it comes to the workplace, we might feel that greatness is found in the biggest paycheck. Or, it could come down to responsibility—the number of employees we supervise or sites that we manage. Greatness is associated with climbing the corporate ladder. We have an inherent sense of workplace hierarchy from the tech billionaire firing rockets into space to the immigrant janitor, emptying the trash after hours.
Our understanding of greatness takes shape from an early age. Consider our schools. Greatness is acknowledged in brainy students who earn academic laurels, like National Honor Society, valedictorian, and salutatorian. Greatness is heralded on the athletic field, where our natural prowess for speed, agility, or teamwork is rewarded. Some students think that greatness is found in popularity—kids with the coolest circle of friends, best clothes, prettiest faces, and nicest homes are often most admired.
What do we believe makes for greatness?
In our reading from Mark’s gospel, the disciples were challenged to rethink their understanding of greatness. Jesus and his friends were walking a long way, apart from the crowds. The Lord used this quiet time to share a second prediction of the betrayal, suffering, and death that would befall him. Given Jesus’ bleak prophecy, we might expect the disciples to discuss how they could best support, protect, and encourage their friend Jesus. Or perhaps they would ponder how best to continue Jesus’ message and mission, if the worst should happen. They could have talked about care for mother Mary, help for the struggling crowds, or healing for all those sick people who depended upon Jesus’ compassion.
But at the day’s end, as they settled into Peter’s home in Capernaum, we learn that the disciples spent the day arguing. When confronted by Jesus, the twelve grudgingly admitted that they had been squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Peter thought he was the best because he had walked on water—at least for a little while. Andrew thought he might be best because he was a natural evangelist, bringing Philip and Nathaniel and even Peter to the Lord. James said he was the greatest because he was a natural leader whom others respected. Judas thought he should take top honors for best managing the money. On the road that day, there must have been the sort of heated, trash-talking debate that we hear in the locker room or on the line of scrimmage, in the board room or on the playground.
Scientists believe that the desire for status is a fundamental human motive. A 2015 study by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business found that status is something that all people crave and covet—even if we don’t realize it. We may not want wealth or a fancy home or an impressive job title, but we all desire respect, some voluntary deference from others, and social value – to know that we matter in the lives of other people. Status is universally important because it influences how people think and behave. It can even effect how we feel. Indeed, when we perceive that our status among peers, work, or community is low, we suffer. Low status impacts our health, making us more prone to depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease.
In the first century world of the Roman Empire, Caesar was the greatest. Members of the imperial family and the Roman senate, as well as those who enjoyed their patronage, had high status. Roman citizens had higher status and greater legal protections than residents of vassal nations, like Israel. At the bottom of the social ladder were menial slaves and children. Within Greco-Roman society, unwanted children could be abandoned at birth at the discretion of their father. Even within Hebrew society, children had no status apart from the Beth Ab, the house of the father, the patriarch. Outside the protective order of the Beth Ab, a child was completely vulnerable. That’s why the Torah is littered with commands to care for orphans.
When we consider that first century world, we begin to imagine how shocking and offensive Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples would have been. First, Jesus says that the greatest of all must be servant of all. The servant of all was the lowest status slave in a household. They were typically the youngest slave with the most menial of duties: foot washing, sanitation, caring for animals. The servant of all didn’t eat until every other slave in the household had been served—by them. Only then could they eat from the leftovers. Next, Jesus—a high status rabbi who typically would not have been concerned with children at all—Jesus took a toddler and placed the child in their midst. This child would have been the lowest status, most vulnerable, and dependent person in the home. Jesus gave the child a hug and told the twelve that this was who he was. This was whom they should emulate and welcome. Can we imagine the shocked silence in that room?
It’s a tough teaching that flies in the face of our fundamental human desire for status. It’s hard to even think of a comparable metaphor in today’s world. Perhaps, Jesus would call us to be like migrant farm workers, spending long hours in backbreaking labor for low wages to feed America. Perhaps Jesus would call us to be like the vulnerable children caught up in the foster care system without a permanent home or consistent guardian or a legal voice in decisions that profoundly affect our lives. Whatever our notions about status may be, Jesus wants to turn them upside down. Jesus wants to thoroughly reorient us.
Karoline Lewis, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, teaches that we begin to understand what Jesus is trying to say when we consider what God has done. The immortal, omniscient, inscrutable, unknowable great God of the multiverse chose to be mortal, to know the finitude and the frailty of flesh. That downward path continued as Jesus—God made flesh—concerned himself with the least of these, the low-status people of his time. He sought the lost sheep of Israel, forgave sinners, touched those who were unclean, welcomed scoundrels, taught women, and healed Gentile outsiders. It got worse: betrayal, prison, a kangaroo court, torture, public humiliation, and a brutal excruciating death that was reserved for the lowest status residents of the empire. God gave us the ultimate object lesson in downward mobility. Think about it.
It is a hard and holy road. It makes no sense whatsoever until we affirm what those earliest Christians knew about Jesus, knew about God. God is love. God is agape, the choice to love others and act always in their best interest, without counting the personal cost. Agape is the choice to love whether or not the object of our love is lovable or worthy. It is a choice to love, regardless of status. Agape prompted God to become flesh in Jesus. In agape, Jesus poured out his life with kindness and caring, healing and justice. In agape, Jesus chose the cross for the redemption of status-seeking disciples like Peter, Andrew, and James, for status-seeking disciples like us.
In today’s tough teaching, Jesus dares to hope that there will be others to follow him on that hard road of downward mobility. He opens a window on a world that can be ours, a world where greatness is found in love that serves, honors, and sacrifices. Jesus challenges us to envision a world where we are willing to be weak, vulnerable, and humble for others’ sake. It is a world where our innate desire for status is subverted, where the greatest among us are not the folks with political power, the biggest bank accounts, or the most followers on social media. The greatest of all love the most. It is world where we can all be great.
As I finish up my message, I’d like to invite you to imagine the world that Jesus would have us make, where greatness is found in vulnerability and self-giving love. In Jesus’s world, the Olympic games honor those who care the most. The gold medals this summer went out to all the nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and caregivers who have been on the frontlines of the COVID crisis. In Jesus’s world, the billionaires aren’t firing rockets into space; instead, they are vying to ensure that the world’s children have safe clean drinking water, enough food, and an education. In Jesus’s world, reality television doesn’t pit contestants against one another for survival on a desert island. Rather, competitors go toe-to-toe to see who can be kindest, who can do the most good, who can make the biggest positive difference in their hometown. In Jesus’s world, every child is honored and everyone has status, not because they are intelligent, athletic, or popular, but because they are children of a God who loves them enough to die for them.
It’s a good world. It’s the greatest. Let’s go forth to make it so. Amen.
Lewis, Karoline. “The Greatest” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 17, 2018. Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.
Lose, David. “A Different Kind of Greatness” in Dear Partner in Preaching, Sept. 2018. Accessed online at http://www.davidlose.net/
Moore-Keish, Martha L. “Theological Perspective on Mark 9:30-37” in Feasting on the Word, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.
Ringe, Sharon H. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 9:30-37” in Feasting on the Word, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.