Mark 9: 30-37 (NRSV)
Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Who Is the Greatest?
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
I first approached this passage with some incredulity. The followers of Jesus, his disciples, the very men first chosen to hear the Son of Man’s teachings, are arguing about who is the greatest amongst themselves. Greatest in what? Knowledge? Who can run the fastest? No, just the “greatest”. Of course, Jesus chose them because he knew they were imperfect, after all what good would it have been to have a following who were perfect - that would be an unrealistic experiment, a false representation of the humankind which were to receive his teaching.
So I ask, where have I seen people today squabbling over who is the greatest? Whether it is conscious or not I can guarantee you you’ve asked yourself whether you were the “greatest” in X, Y or Z in the last 24 hours. At least on some smaller scale anyway.
“Am I better looking than this person?”.
“Am I funnier than that person?”.
I know I have. The most confident person in the world will ask themselves these questions; it’s all a part of inherent human insecurity. We’ll never be perfect and by God is that apparent. So we ask ourselves these questions day in, day out. Here’s Jesus’ answer:
You are imperfect, and that’s ok.
In the face of insecurity, Jesus tells us that approaching the world with his view is not about figuring out the best from the greats. It’s about approaching the world with a childlike optimism which knows no comparative boundaries. Young children don’t walk into a room and instantly weigh themselves against every other face present. They take on the world with a ceaseless fascination and potential for each new day. There are no expectations bogged down by feeling inferior to someone else; there are no expectations at all. The kingdom isn’t about refocusing or re-centering your assumptions about the world - it’s about letting go of the rules you’ve built in your head for achieving greatness or interacting with others. It’s about approaching everyday life with an unfailing optimism and finding hope in even the smallest rays of goodness. It’s about not condemning the world before you’ve even given it a shot because you’re worried about being ‘great’. And what a kingdom it would be if we turned the pyramid upside down like this. You are no longer destracted by the thoughts of insecurity clouding your mind. You are free to serve the world in a way in which it needs, no longer thinking “This person is not worth my time” or “This person is better than me and that’s all I’m going to think about for the next 15 minutes”. We therefore see people as they are, their faults and positives, and we can some alongside them to see where these things can grow, while they do the same for us. The Kingdom is a ground floor experience where we’re all on same, imperfect level.
And that’s ok.
Alex McElwee is a Dublin born student attending University College Dublin for Arts and Humanities. His idea of an afternoon well spent is a hot day wearing lycra spandex on a bicycle before going home to read the works of Steinbeck or Hemingway. Come alongside him as he writes inexperienced things about Jesus and tries to build the Kingdom in the best way he can.