Who’s the greatest?

Who is the greatest?

The church in the Western world for the last – let’s say four hundred and fifty years – has considered itself the greatest; a top level power – a player in the global community. Think about why this was the case; Christian religion, for better or worse, opened new territories to white, European development.  The Church (as an institution) helped monarchs make rules, then governments, then empires.  From the earliest days of Christian Europe, the institutional church filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of Roman Imperialism, and until the middle of the Twentieth Century, Christianity maintained the illusion of power in most of the countries and colonies of Western Europe – and of course, in North America.  The greatest – though not always the best – but surely the (Institutional) Church had achieved a certain status in the world that Jesus disciples could not have imagined.

But since we are a product of the “great age” of Christian thought, we are not sure why Jesus would need to redefine ‘greatness’ when it becomes the subject of discussion among his disciples.

Greatness, in this context, is about power.  You might want to imagine that the disciples were comparing their own relative successes on their recently completed mission trip, or trying to decide whom Jesus’ successor may (eventually) be in their tiny travelling theology school (Jesus has just suggested that the Son of Man would be killed – and raised; a statement that the disciples did not understand…), but the word used in Mark’s gospel means greatest in the ‘Mohammed Ali’ sense of the word.  The best; the top; none better – most magnificent, powerful etc etc etc.

The followers of Jesus needed only look to the world around them and notice how greatness was achieved; through power.  The greatest among them (in society) had influence, positions of authority, and wealth.

These guys – walking along dusty roads, living on the hospitality of strangers, challenged at every turn by the religious authorities (and the civil authority) are the opposite of what society considers “great”- and when they imagine greatness, they are not dreaming of some heavenly reward; they were thinking about power.  So this sudden call to a new reality; a divine reality – whoever wishes to be first must be last of all and servant of all – must have been difficult to hear, and harder still to imagine. So to help them, Jesus takes a child, places it in their midst; the universal symbol of helplessness – of non-power – and Jesus tells them their needs must take a back seat.  They are to welcome those who are powerless – to interact with people in ways that won’t necessarily increase the disciples own influence.  The truly stunning revelation is not that there are people who are ‘worse off ‘ – Jesus invites them to honour God by honouring the least of these – that is the revolutionary idea

It was counter-intuitive then; it is still an unusual perspective. The disciples may have been astonished by the notion that there were people in the neighbourhood (or in society) who had less power than themselves, or those whose measure of greatness was something as ordinary as a small band of students trailing after an unlikely teacher. Jesus’ object lesson ought to stand as a reminder to us that power – greatness –  is not where we think it is; and that true greatness – greatness in the promised Kingdom of God – involves a different kind of power.

Our attitudes toward greatness are still wrapped up in money, fame, influence and power, but we also imagine that it is possible for people to achieve these things through determination and a good work ethic.  You could argue that greatness has become a cultural expectation – so we don’t ask the question for ourselves as the disciples did; today in the church, the quiet debate is not “who (among us) is the greatest?” – it is, rather, “whose need is greatest, and how can we help?”  Imagining our own power to be sufficient – and our own needs relatively small – we cast about for places where we may do the most good (and so make a name for ourselves in the name of God.)  –  It’s a subtle difference and it is still the wrong question.

While it is good that the church is willing and able to respond to disasters both sudden and slow-moving, our focus tends to get dragged to the big events – the grand scale of wreckage and despair that is now made known to us almost as soon as it happens – can leave us numb; but then we can make a donation, or host an event, or attend a vigil, and feel like we have contributed, in some small way, to a great relief effort.  That is how we work, (and it is not a bad approach, given the scope of the misery we are asked to consider) but our habit of lurching from disaster to disaster must surely seem (to some) as though we have no clear sense of direction.

Remember the Tsunami of 2005?  The Haitian earthquake?  Bosnia?  Bangladesh?  The Vietnamese ‘boat people’?  Headline makers, every one;  but when was the last time we thought about Haiti?  Or Indonesia?  or the plight of minorities in the Asian sub-continent?  Has the need been eliminated, or merely eclipsed by more recent news…

Whose need is greatest, we say in our board meetings and our prayers – imagining that the success of the institution might somehow serve the Kingdom of God.  So we acknowledge the crisis appeals, and continue to pour money into buildings and programs in the vain hope (and fervent desire) that we may yet be a power (for good) in our culture.   And then Jesus, having confronted us with the grim reality of his own greatness with a blunt announcement of his inevitable death and glorious resurrection, puts a child in his arms and says this is what need looks like; consider the multitudes who are truly powerless – acknowledge these – identify with these – serve these and put their needs and comforts ahead of your own.

Not just the children, of course – the child in Jesus’ arms is a symbol of all human helplessness, and the urgent need of all Creation for the redemptive love of God.  And we are invited to be agents of that redemption, by opening our hearts – our homes – our lives to this wonderfully simple and beautiful idea that to be first is to ignore power; that to be great is to seek the companionship of those whom society ignores.  That to follow Jesus is to love what seems (to us) unloveable.  The scale of our outreach must be both small – person to person as well as grand – nation to nation.  Jesus invites us to overcome personal prejudice and  serve those whom God has called children.  It is not the sort of greatness we might have imagined for ourselves – but it such basic acts of love are the service to which we are called.

Who is the greatest?  To those who honour God in humility – who seek justice, and love kindness, the question is irrelevant.  For in such service, God’s greatness and glory are revealed, and that is all that matters.

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