The relevance of Scripture continues to amaze me.
The many stories and illustrations we think we need to invigorate our sermons, to make them more interesting, to connect these ancient texts with current affairs only succeeds in intimating that, actually, the Bible is not meaningful, not helpful, not pertinent for today, for how we make sense of our lives. Skip the stories, preachers. Our preaching would be very different if we actually trusted that Scripture does indeed speak a timely word for our day and time.
Case in point? This week’s Gospel lesson with its timeless question, “Who is the greatest?” The way in which this text offers comment on and critique of our present-day construal of greatness is more than timely. It is necessary, in fact. Without it, so-called and self-proclaimed greatness runs amok without any checks and balances. Without any controls or constraints. Without any qualifiers that might decide and determine said greatness.
And interestingly, the capacity to assess our own greatness is rather challenged, to say the least. Regularly misconstrued. We lack a certain sense of self-reflective capacity to evaluate just how great we are. As a result, we should be suspicious of those who insist on their own greatness, who seem confident in their ability to adjudicate the criteria of greatness and apply it to themselves. We don’t have to look far these days to find leaders who regularly tout their tenures as the best ever, the greatest ever. Be warned, says Jesus. The interlude between Jesus and his disciples suggests that what determines greatness is best set by some sort of objectivity — outside of ourselves.
“Who is the greatest?” is a question that will never get old, never run its course, never be immaterial. Why? Because the measure of greatness always seems up for grabs. Because the gauge of greatness is as contextual, as subjective, as most anything in life. Our capacity to assess greatness with any kind of consistency, any kind of reliable or uniform characteristics, has not manifested a very good track record. And we, whether that be us as individuals who profess to be Christian, or churches, or judicatories, or institutions of the church, certainly have not been dependable in our ability to determine greatness with Jesus’ qualifications in mind.
Instead, we regularly capitulate to the world’s standards of greatness, which are usually yoked with power over, wealth, control, status, influence, etc. Criteria set by those who do not have the Gospel in mind, who choose blissful unawareness of Jesus’ principles, who have relegated the ministry of Jesus to the margins of moral imagination.
And lest we think we preachers are exempt from such sway, we should pause and consider how we evaluate the greatness of our ministries, the greatness of our churches, the greatness of our preaching. Let’s be honest. Out come the numbers, the statistics. Out come membership roles and “successful” programs. How many comments you get on your preaching. Let’s be truthful. Not one of us imagines the success of our callings as being the least, as being recognized as one with the least power, the least influence. Not one of us imagines having only the capacities of a child when it comes to our positions and our vocations. Not one of us imagines being looked down upon so as to be deemed great.
And yet, here we are. And it’s up to us, Dear Working Preachers, to preach about the kind of greatness, Jesus’ greatness, that calls out classifications which ignore Jesus’ teaching. Those perceptions of greatness that find Jesus’ characterization of greatness not to their liking. Those interpretations of greatness that think Jesus’ description of greatness less than convenient because it does not align with what they need greatness to be, what’s best for them, that which casts them in the best light.
And so, as it turns out, the definition of greatness is indeed a question of faith, a Christological question, a theological question. A question that the faithful are asked to consider. Were this not the case, I think anyway, Mark would have left it out. That Mark included this interchange, that this is a critical point for followers of Christ actually to follow, gives me pause.
Mark is pointing to something important, something essential, about believing in Jesus. Because God becoming human, the incarnation, upended every assumption of greatness that the world deemed as definitive. Because God becoming human decided that greatness is not about separation but solidarity, not about better than but relationship. Not about self-adulation but empowerment and encouragement of the other.
Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness. We are called to preach this kind of greatness, we are called to embody this kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.