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.”
We have been programed from early childhood to understand that being first is greatness. Greatness implies power, accomplishment, fame, wealth, and all the other things that allow you to do things, influence people, and make things go your way. As we read about the disciples’ discussion on this occasion things haven’t changed that much since their day in the early years of the Common Era.
But that’s not what Jesus says. He drives his point home by picking up a young child in his arms and tells the disciples that whoever welcomes a child like this welcomes him and welcomes God the Father.
Suddenly it seems like Jesus has gone from saying something very strange to saying that to be first you have to be last. Well, that’s kind of weird, and nothing like what these men had been taught from early childhood.
In the first-century world children were of not treated with high regard. Their parents must have loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing. They never came first. They were totally dependent, totally vulnerable, and totally powerless. So how could caring for and welcoming a child be considered as greatness? It must have seemed totally foolish.
But is it? Think about it for a minute: What if Jesus is right? What if we understood greatness the way Jesus does? That means that it isn’t about power and wealth, or fame and all the rest. Instead we measure greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others.
Jesus’ definition of greatness calls us to a new understanding of what it means to be great in God’s eye, not our cultural understanding. Jesus says that true greatness lies in service, by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little or no influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore. Greatness is determined by our own vulnerability, by our service and sacrifice, by our humility and honoring others, by our truthfulness and faithfulness. We are called to embody this kind of greatness if we follow Jesus, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness that is born out of God’s love.
What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? If there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first?
Make no mistake. This is hard stuff, totally different than what the culture – whether in the first century or the twenty-first – tells us. We often do the same thing the disciples did, looking out for ourselves rather than others, trusting more in our wealth than in God, shutting others out rather than inviting them in, seeking our welfare rather than that of those around us.
But here’s the thing that is a reality: the road the disciples are traveling with Jesus as they argue about who is the greatest is the road to Jerusalem. Jesus is walking the road to Jerusalem and the cross willingly in order to sacrifice everything for them…and for all who will follow him.
- “Who are the “unimportant” in the world around you?
- How do we relate to them?
- How should we relate to them?
Sue is NLS Spiritual Director, since 2019 and is a retired Lutheran Pastor (ELCA). Active in VdC since 1995, she has served two terms on the Board of the Texas VdC Secretariat, and also on the Texas Gulf Coast VdC Board as Spiritual Director since its start-up in 2017.