Sermon Seeds: Wanting Greatness
Sunday, September 19, 2021
17th Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Proverbs 31:10–31 and Psalm 1
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16–2:1, 2:12–22 or Jeremiah 11:18–20 and Psalm 54
James 3:13–4:3, 4:7–8a
Confront (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
What prompted the disciples’ conversation? Why were they arguing about who among them was the greatest? The disciples, at this point in the narrative, had spent significant time with Jesus and with one another. Their relationships were formed; they knew each other’s personality. Some, like at the Mount of Transfiguration, had particular and special experiences with Jesus that they could claim as their own. Perhaps, they all did. As we read the gospel texts, we receive access to only a fraction of their interactions and encounters. But, this was a question among them, “who was the greatest.”
The conversation occurred in the midst of a journey through Galilee to Capernaum. Indeed, their argument was preceded by another teaching by Jesus that revealed his coming passion. Again, the disciples were perplexed by this. Rather than explore that reaction with Jesus and seek more information or elaboration from him, they deflect their feelings of confusion, perhaps anger, fear, and grief, into an argument with one another. Why did they want to know who was greatest among them when confronted with the idea of the death of Jesus?
Have you ever avoided a difficult reality with a meaningless disagreement? Have you ever been in an argument and wondered, how did it start? Or, have you been the object of an unprovoked attack that you eventually realized wasn’t about you at all?
The irony in this passage, which Jesus eventually exposes, is that in their desire to attribute greatness unto themselves, the disciples were avoiding confrontation with the reality that would cement Jesus’ greatness among followers, skeptics, and critics alike. Their silence–both to Jesus’ revelation and questioning–exposes a vulnerability in their relationship. There is a profound lack of trust on the part of the disciples who might follow him in the moment or align with him day to day, but retreat among themselves when confronted with a future that is uncertain or undesirable.
This is true even when promised a happy ending. In each prediction of his death, Jesus informed his companions of the full story. The passion was always followed by the resurrection. Yet, it seems that his contemporary followers were as singularly focused on his death as believers have become today. It makes me think of that line from the musical, Hamilton, when General George Washington says to his young and eager protege, “Dying is easy. Living is harder.”
Like Alexander Hamilton, the disciples want greatness. Perhaps, they heard Jesus’ pronouncement as a call to arms, and like many when faced with the possibility of death, they began to consider their legacy. How will they be remembered, if they would be remembered at all? Or, they might have been working on a chain of command. Who would pick up the mantle of leadership once Jesus was killed?
At the same time, we should consider that this teaching also comes after Jesus has instructed the disciples that they too will be called upon to pick up their cross and follow him. As Don B. Garlington puts it:
This query was a matter of some moment for the disciples of Jesus. While it is possible to attribute their in-house wrangling to the foibles of human nature and then dismiss it simply as the beginning of ministerial jealously, the issue for Jesus is much weightier. In a nutshell, his followers must be willing to die to themselves for the sake of being his servants.
The cross was not invented for Jesus; it was already an established instrument of state execution used as much for public display and deterrent purposes as for punishment. This warning did not hold any ambiguity for the disciples even as they clung to ignorance and confusion as a self-protective measure. It’s much easier to have a spat over who’s greatest among them. In doing so, however, they limit themselves in the same way they attempt to ignore the greatness of Jesus.
Jesus does not allow that to continue.
Jesus reads as much from their silence. He sits down, calls them, and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Since in the eschaton “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” it is imperative to make oneself last now by serving others. Those who have become servants of all, who have embraced the lowliest of vocations—not those who have lorded over all—will emerge as the greatest when all things are brought to the light. The future eschato-logical reversal should thus effect a present reversal of the social hierarchy. This present reversal takes place through radical love. (Judith M. Gundry-Volf)
Jesus addresses more than their superficial argument (although he squarely confronts that too). His response expands and extends his teaching about his own journey. Mark’s narrative is full of movement. He recounts the action almost as if each moment overlaps another. It’s a choppy read giving little room for transitions or segues from one passage to the next. Even these conversations and teaching seem to occur while they are moving from one place to the next. As a result, these three conversational focal points (passion prediction, greatness argument, and child welcoming) may seem disjointed. Yet they are connected in the statement, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
You want greatness, seek servitude.
Jesus continues to illustrate the point of re-ordering by reorienting their understanding of children according to the kindom of God rather than prevailing cultural norms. Again, a dual teaching takes place. Gundry-Volf explains further:
To illustrate, Jesus takes a little child in his arms. In a Greco-Roman milieu, children were the least-valued members of society; they were considered not yet fully human. According to the institution oí patria potestas, children had no legal rights. A father had the right brutally to punish, sell, pawn, expose, and even kill his own child. Newborns could be exposed—abandoned in a public place—where they would generally either die or be picked up by strangers and raised for profit as slaves, prostitutes, or beggars. Baby girls were especially vulnerable to this fate….The status and treatment of children in a Jewish milieu was more positive. Children were considered a blessing from God. Exposure and infanticide were prohibited. Nevertheless, the disciples’ rebuke of those who were bringing little children to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16) shows that within Judaism too children could be deprecated as socially or religiously insignificant. Jesus’ embracing the little child, thereby making himself a loving servant of such a one, overturns such views. The great rabbi and Messiah condescends to love and serve a little child.
In contemporary culture, we might view the disciples’ behavior as “childish” as they attempt to conceal their bad behavior from their teacher and guide. Truthfully, it’s immature, and there is no age limit on such behavior. We betray our own condescension toward young people when we categorize unacceptable or unreasonable actions as characteristic of childhood rather than an inability or unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths. Jesus repudiates any form of devaluation of children.
In fact, Jesus exceeds that by identifying with the child and identifying the child with Godself. In doing so, Jesus seems to encourage real “childish” behavior.
Remember when you were first deemed old enough to make your own bed or help put away dishes. There was an eagerness that came from the ability to contribute. Maybe you still love to do those things, but there’s a reason that the word “chore” is synonymous with burden. But, a child has to learn that; the first and innate response is delight and pleasure in service. That’s childish behavior.
If you spend any amount of time on social media, you likely have seen memes of young children of diverse identities embracing one another. That diversity may stem from distinctions in ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, or religions. It may also reflect differences in physical ability. The conclusion from those embraces is unambiguous. Our nature, in fact, is not to demean, denigrate, or destroy. Until they are taught that difference is somehow deficient, children accept one another and have no need to overcome diversity. That’s childish behavior.
Maturity comes when our response to experience does not diminish our childishness–our ability to play, to explore, to wonder, to accept, and to love without needless and harmful impediments. That’s greatness that doesn’t require any jockeying for position or divisive arguments. It’s the greatness inherent within the child crafted in the divine image who hasn’t been burdened with conflicting perspectives on their appearance.
There are three separate occurrences that record a variation of the same conversation. All of them result from Jesus revealing the plan for his passion and resurrection to those he invited to follow that forged path. Each time, the disciples respond in an unfavorable way, and Jesus provides a correction. One was a call to pick up their own cross. This time, Jesus charges them to welcome the child.
And maybe the child they really needed to embrace was the child within. Certainly, Jesus is affirming the worth of every child, but in the dual lesson, that is an important but perhaps tangential point. The child within questions everything. The child within looks with fresh eyes and expects new discoveries. The child within hasn’t learned to fear the unknown but anticipates it. The child within still plays, has fun, and isn’t afraid of embarrassment. The child within hasn’t learned to be less than all that the Creator has molded them to be.
Want greatness? Welcome them. Nurture the child within. Embrace them. Let them free.
For further reflection:
“I am not concerned that I am not known; I seek to be worthy to be known.” ― Confucius
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” — Mother Teresa
“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” — J.K. Rowling
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Play. Use coloring books or invite the congregation to play a game.
Garlington, Don B. “Who Is the Greatest?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53, no. 2 (June 2010): 287–316.
Gundry-Volf, Judith M. “Mark 9:33-37.” Interpretation 53, no. 1 (January 1999): 57–61.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
September 19 is also Just Peace Sunday. You may find resources for worship planning and sermon writing here: https://www.ucc.org/international-policy/just_peace_sunday_resources/
Proverbs 31:10–31 and Psalm 1
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16–2:1, 2:12–22 or Jeremiah 11:18–20 and Psalm 54
James 3:13–4:3, 4:7–8a
10 A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
1 Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16–2:1, 2:12–22
16 But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.
2 For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
12 “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
13 He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
14 He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
15 the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
16 We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
17 Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
18 for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
19 Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
20 Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
21 Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
22 and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
18 It was the LORD who made it known to me, and I knew;
then you showed me their evil deeds.
19 But I was like a gentle lamb
led to the slaughter.
And I did not know it was against me
that they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
so that his name will no longer be remembered!”
20 But you, O LORD of hosts, who judge righteously,
who try the heart and the mind,
let me see your retribution upon them,
for to you I have committed my cause.
1 Save me, O God, by your name,
and vindicate me by your might.
2 Hear my prayer, O God;
give ear to the words of my mouth.
3 For the insolent have risen against me,
the ruthless seek my life;
they do not set God before them. Selah
4 But surely, God is my helper;
the Lord is the upholder of my life.
5 He will repay my enemies for their evil.
In your faithfulness, put an end to them.
6 With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you;
I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good.
7 For he has delivered me from every trouble,
and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.
James 3:13–4:3, 4:7–8a
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
4 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”