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Do You Want to Be the Best?
Have you ever noticed how many lists there are of what is best? We have the Academy Awards for the best picture, best actress, best actor, best screenplay, and even best lighting and costumes. The Emmy Awards identify the best television shows; the Tony awards decide about the best play.
We check Consumers Reports to find out which car is the best with the least number of repairs, or which washing machine does the best job and lasts the longest.
Several years ago an author put together a book that purported to tell us who the most influential people in the world had been. He took a lot of flack because he decided that the most influential person in all of history was Mohammed. Most people felt that Jesus influenced more people than any other single person.
We always seem to be looking for which is the best, what is the greatest.
So maybe it's not so unusual that we find Jesus' disciples debating among themselves about which of them is the best disciple - who is the greatest among them. Jesus overhears this discussion and asks what they are talking about. Suddenly they all are stone quiet. Then Jesus asks them all to sit down.
I think it's interesting that he doesn't yell at them, he doesn't seem to be angry, but he sees a teachable moment and takes advantage of it. "Sit down here," he says, "Let's talk." His statement, according to Mark, is very brief. "Those of you who want to be first must be last of all and must be servant of all."
Once again Jesus is taking their world and turning it upside down. What they thought was important isn't, and what they thought unimportant really is. It's as if Jesus were saying it's not the one who comes in first who wins, but who comes in last. It's not the one who has servants that is the greatest; it's the servant! Jesus says to be number one you need to be the number one servant, the one who serves the most.
We think of great people as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Tiger Woods or maybe Clint Eastwood. They have talent, they've made a ton of money, and lots of people work for them.
In the past maybe we think of and Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie or Thomas Edison. They were smart people who accomplished a great deal and made a lot of money. Maybe some people would name the president or governor or some senators as great people today; although we usually don't call them great until after they're dead! But these are people who have a great deal of power and influence. They have it all; they are able to call the shots.
II Jesus' definition of greatness is very different. He defines greatness as the one who serves the most. The greatest is the one who gives the most, not who gets the most. Picture the worker in the soup kitchen doling out a hot meal, or the social worker tirelessly working to get help for a family who is in bankruptcy and losing everything. Think of the family that can't afford it but spends generously to get food for their neighbors who are in an even worse situation.
Consider the custodian who keeps the building clean and healthy, but whose work isn't even noticed unless it isn't done. Just a thought: how many of us know the name of the president of our company? How many know the custodian's name?
As Jesus defines it our world, our values are turned upside down. The top is the bottom and the bottom is the top.
Then, in what seems to be a completely unrelated action, Jesus lifts up a child and puts him on his lap. He says, "Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name, welcomes me and also welcomes the one who sent me."
What does that have to do with what Jesus was talking about with regards to servants? Our children are the most important, not the least important. They are the greatest, not the least. Parents will sell their house and move to a better school district for their children. Parents will change churches because one has a more active youth group than another.
Children aren't servants; they are the ones being served. Jesus example of the child seems to go against, rather than support, what he's been saying.
But Jesus' words would be heard very differently in first century Palestine. Children then were considered as low as servants. They didn't have any standing in society; they couldn't raise the prestige of the family or make it more influential. Children weren't old enough to work, so they didn't have much to contribute to the family's well-being. In fact, they could be quite a drain on family resources. So for Jesus to raise up a child was like raising up a servant.
Also, children are vulnerable. The younger they are the more helpless they are. They depend on others for help and protection. They don't have prestige, but they don't search for it either.
So when Jesus holds this child in his arms and says, "Whoever welcomes such a child in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me," he is directly continuing what he said to the disciples earlier. His talk about children has everything to do with his talk about the value of those considered least among us.
He is saying we should welcome those who are without honors or titles or prestige. Reach out to the person who can't give you anything in return; at least nothing material.
Jesus says when we welcome one like that, it is as if we were welcoming Christ himself. These words connect directly with what Jesus says in Matthew 25, where he tells us to care for those who are hungry, naked, sick, in prison, and strangers. And then he says "Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me." To care for those in most serious need is to care for Christ. To welcome them is to welcome him.
Mother Teresa talked about that passage in Matthew 25 often. She said that as the sisters of her order cared for the dying in the streets of Calcutta, they were caring for Christ himself.
It's tough living in the world Jesus brought us. Everything is upside down. What our world considers useless, Jesus tells us is of great value. Jesus tells us to honor and respect those who get no honor or respect from the people around them. What the world tells us is really valuable - honor, privilege, money and power - Jesus tells us not only isn't valuable, but can be a detriment to our faith.
Many people who have gone after the best that the world has to offer - the recognition, wealth, and influence - have found that getting all that can result in emptiness. Those who honor the lowly and hurting often find that there is no greater feeling of satisfaction and reward.
I spoke once with a young woman who had accomplished an enormous amount in a very short period of time. As we talked over lunch I recounted all the honors, recognitions, awards, and praise that she had received. There was a lull in the conversation. Then she said, "Yes, but is that all there is. Is that all there is to life?"
I was happy to be able to answer, "No. There is a whole lot more." It's just in a very different place.
© Richard J. Henderson 2009