According to the Synoptic Gospels the disciples apparently had a preoccupation with the pursuit of greatness. Such an interest would be applauded by any business executive or sports coach in our comparative and competitive society. But not by Jesus.
Here’s Mark’s account:
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:33-37).
One could read this to mean that Jesus is not against the pursuit of greatness; rather, he is redefining what constitutes greatness. One could turn Jesus’ words into another strategy for the pursuit of greatness.
There is no question that service rendered on behalf of others in the pursuit of greatness is far better than grasping for position and power. But it still misses the point.
I believe Jesus is confronting the problem at its root. God’s realm is not about status, applause, rewards, winning prizes, or acquiring merit badges.
The wisdom of Jesus confronts us with an alternative to the normal, conventional wisdom of society. In Jesus’ alternative world – in the realm of God – the very pursuit of greatness is eliminated.
Love for others is what matters. Love is the end and the means to the end. It is the goal, and it is the motive for reaching the goal. It’s all about loving and serving others simply for the sake of the good and well-being of others, especially the most vulnerable.
This is the point Jesus makes with the little child. A little child represented in that culture one of society’s most vulnerable members. Scholars have pointed out that in the Greco-Roman culture children were generally held in low esteem. The characteristic feature of children in that world was their complete lack of legal status. There were no laws protecting children’s rights. Jesus is instructing his disciples to welcome and receive the lowest and the least, the weakest and most vulnerable among them.
But in God’s realm there are no lowest and least. All are God’s daughters and sons. All equally depend on divine grace and are loved with an unconditional love.
In the movie Forrest Gump, Forest is mistreated when he gets on the school bus for the first time. Forest is wearing braces on his legs and none of the kids want to give him a seat. As he starts toward an empty seat the kid next to it says, “Seat’s taken.” Then he starts toward another, and the kid there says, “Taken.” Still another says, “Can’t sit here.” But then a little cute blond girl speaks up, “You can sit here if you want.”
Reflecting later on this experience he says, “You know, it’s funny what a young man recollects; I don’t remember when I was born. I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas, and I don’t remember when I went on my first outdoor picnic. But I do remember when I heard the sweetest voice in the whole wide world.” Forrest says, “I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. She was like an angel.”
Whenever we stand up for and identify with those society regards as the lowest and least we are like angels – we are servants and representatives of God. Angels have no interest in pursuing personal greatness. Do we?