In today’s world, becoming great means that one must compete against his or her neighbors for what seems like limited resources. In families, siblings compete with each other for the time and affection of their parents, the best seat in the car, or for the best video game controller with which to play. In civic organizations, members compete with each other for influence in order to get their particular interest or program adopted and funded. At work, colleagues compete against one another for that coveted promotion. In sports, teammates are encouraged to work harder than one another for that starting position.
Becoming great on a societal level forces us into a “me” versus “them” mentality, promoting attitudes of animosity and feelings of anxiety among peers. The quest for greatness in our society impedes the building of true, harmonious and peaceful community. There is no such thing as a meaningful relationship predicated upon trust when everyone is pursuing greatness according to the ways of the world.
Unfortunately, this kind of winner-takes-all approach to greatness has permeated the church — with devastating effect. Rather than working together in harmony toward the common goal of proclaiming the Gospel and bringing the world into the Kingdom of God, congregations compete against each other for all the area’s youth. They even go to the extreme of recruiting youth from other churches. Disciples within particular congregations outmaneuver one another for influence and power on the governing board. Pastors hoard power and undermine elders who are opposed to their ideas. Elders who feel slighted by the pastor get together after church to talk about the pastor. They even find ways to resist and sabotage the pastor’s efforts. Members, sensing the tension, decide to leave. Or they end up choosing sides, resulting in factionalism and division. They all do this because they mistakenly think that greatness means getting their way and running the show. How distracting and devastating to the mission of God’s people!
But Jesus teaches us otherwise. In Mark 9:33-37, Jesus speaks directly to the sin of unwarranted competition and remorseless factionalism within his church. Jesus observes his disciples (you and me). Jesus knows every thought, feeling, attitude and behavior his disciples (you and me) have and do. Whenever one of his disciples (you or me) is thinking too highly of him or herself, and engaging in prideful attitudes and divisive behaviors, Jesus is quick to make a strong rebuke.
On the way to Capernaum, the disciples of Jesus get into an argument about who is greatest among them and in the eyes of God. Jesus immediately calls them out by asking, “What were you arguing about?” The disciples, sensing they are behaving poorly, plead the fifth and remain silent. But Jesus does not let them get away with it. He persists by saying, “Whoever wants to be first in my kingdom, must be last of all and servant of all.” Then to illustrate, Jesus takes a little child and places the child among them and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…and the One who sent me.”
In that cultural context folks did not have the same affectionate feelings for children that we have today. Children were out of sight and out of mind. They had no rights. No self-respecting adults wanted their children around when guests arrived, especially at a dinner party, which is the context of this story. Yet, Jesus brought that “nothing” of a child to the table. Jesus gave that “worthless” child the best seat in the house. Jesus placed that child right in his affectionate arms.
The point: If you want to be great in the eyes of God, then you must be extremely humble. If you want to be great in the eyes of God, then you must regard others (even your rivals and those you think least important) higher than yourself. In the kingdom of God there is no room for competition and no place for pride. Division, born of competition and pride, is a terrible and egregious sin in the eyes of God. Yet we who call upon God’s name do it so often and well!
Let us take this lesson to heart and remember that God’s love and is eternal and unlimited. Let us turn away from our quest for greatness according to the destructive ways of the world. Let us pursue greatness according to the nondestructive ways of Jesus. Let us reinstitute the virtue of humility as we throw pernicious pride and division out the window. When we do that, we will finally become great in the eyes of God. We will also remain focused upon our singular mission: spreading the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world.