Weekly Seeds: Wanting Greatness

Sunday, September 19, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Wanting Greatness

Focus Prayer:
God of unsearchable mystery and light, your weakness is greater than our strength, your foolishness brings all our cleverness to naught, your gentleness confounds the power we would claim. You call first to be last and last to be first, servant to be leader and ruler to be underling of all. Pour into our hearts the wisdom of your Word and Spirit, that we may know your purpose and live to your glory. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Mark 9:30–37
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.”

All readings for this Sunday:
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
Mark 9:30–37

Focus Questions:

  1. What do you consider greatness?
  2. Who are great individuals you know personally or have heard about historically?
  3. What are key measures of a great life?
  4. What makes the life of Jesus a model of greatness?
  5. How do you pursue greatness in your own life?

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

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.