The disciples had been arguing with each other about which of them was the greatest.
Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation?
I mean, think about it:
You’ve got Peter, a former fisherman who Jesus has just compared to Satan. You’ve got Peter’s brother Andrew, and James and John, other former fisher-people who had walked away from their jobs to follow an itinerant preacher and healer. Then there was Matthew, a tax collector for the Romans, which is to say generally considered a corrupt traitor. There was Thomas, who would come to be associated with doubt, another James, Bartholomew and Philip and Jude and Simon, about whom next to nothing is known, and, of course, Judas.
Not exactly a dream team, and yet there they were: dreaming of greatness.
Not just dreaming, but competing with one another and actually arguing about who among them was the greatest.
Not just arguing about who was the greatest but engaging in such silliness immediately after Jesus had told them, for the second time, that he was going to be killed.
Not just talking smack with each other after Jesus had opened his heart to them, but feigning greatness after they had failed to heal a troubled boy.
Not just arguing and bragging and talking all manner of foolish nonsense, but also going out of their way to avoid the painful matter at hand, the truth they didn’t want to entertain, much less engage.
And why didn’t they want to engage?
Because they didn’t understand. Because they were afraid.
Maybe because they were afraid of not being great.
Maybe because it had occurred to them that if Jesus were executed they would be killed, too.
Maybe because they were beginning to realize that Jesus was not the mighty conqueror thought he was and that he didn’t care at all about being great—or that greatness meant something entirely different to him.
Maybe they were arguing with each other because, having seen what had happened to Peter, they didn’t have the courage to argue with Jesus.
As most of us know, it’s much easier to take out our frustrations or insecurities or anger on someone else instead of dealing with our feelings directly. The classic, even cliche, example of this is the abused employee who gets home from work and yells at his wife, who then spanks the child, who then kicks the dog.
But the real-life examples of deflection and blame range from the deadly to the absurd. Al Qaeda attacks the United States, and so we fight Taliban forces in Afghanistan for 20 years. A narcissistic president loses a fair election and, instead of accepting that the people have spoken, does everything he can to subvert democracy and overturn votes. And, more recently and locally, the UMass football coach, having lost his second game of the season and amassing a career record of one and 17 (now one and 18), complains that Covid safety measures made the cheering UMass crowd too small.
And, perhaps more to the point, it may be that we would rather think about all the ways we and others deflect our feelings, maybe we would rather point our own fingers, do our own blaming, or argue with someone else about something ridiculous than seriously consider what Jesus has to say and actually change our ways of thinking and living.
Because greatness—what it is, what is isn’t, why we want it—is what this passage is about. Because who doesn’t want to be great, or at least successful? Who doesn’t want to be the most popular or beloved or the best in their field? Who doesn’t want to make the biggest difference or at least have the most and best toys? Who doesn’t, at the very least, want to live in a place like Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”—especially if we can be even more above average than most? And who doesn’t, as we’re reminded all the time that we should, want to be happy?
That is the way of the world. That is the air that we breathe, the ocean we swim in, the path we are expected to follow, the ladder we are given to climb.
So common is this upwardly-mobile, top-down-power way of living that we sometimes forget it is not God’s way. So central is this keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of thinking to capitalist myth-making that we sometimes fail to consider that roughly one in 10 of Americans live in poverty and that almost one in 10 people in the world is simply trying to survive on less than $2 a day.
So pervasive and persuasive is the false message that our inherent value is based on external things—looks, income, status, popularity, and ability, for example—that even many of us who try to live faithfully and generously can’t help but believe it. So constant and consistent is the pressure to prove ourselves to others that even those of us who stay busy doing all the right things for all the right causes sometimes forget that we are beloved of God and that there is nothing we have to do and nothing we could do to earn that fierce and extravagant love.
If only we could get into that school or get that job or that partner or that salary, we think. If only we could be so effective in our activism that systemic racism would be a thing of the past and everyone would work together to address the climate crisis. If only people would like us. If only we could fit in. If only we were healthy. if only we could please our parents or our friends or our bosses or our children. If only we were happy. If only we were great, or at least great at something.
But that kind of greatness it is not God’s way, which has everything to do with love, giving, justice, empowerment, and community and nothing at all to do with power over, wealth, violence, and domination.
And worldly greatness was not the way of Jesus, who hung out with all the wrong people, did not seek worldly power or riches, had no interest in winning friends or influencing people, and cared much more about showing those left out and left behind the path to real and abundant life than in impressing the people at the top.
Earlier in the Gospel of Mark Jesus told his disciples that everyone who lives only for themselves will miss real life altogether, that only those who are willing to “lose” their small and self-absorbed lives for the sake of others would find true life.
And now, trying once again to get past his disciples’ scarcity-based, fear-shaped, ambitious thinking and to the heart of this matter of living for others and in God, Jesus tells them that if they really want to be great, if they want to be first, they must be the servant of all.
This was not just a turn of phrase. In Jesus’ time, the servant of all was literally the lowest-ranking servant. At a grand banquet, the servant of all could not eat until everyone else—including the other servants—had eaten all they wanted. The status of children in ancient Jewish society was much the same; they were a blessing from God but they were also considered low-ranking and underdeveloped.
You want to be great? Jesus asks his disciples.
The power to change the world doesn’t come from the top down or the outside in. True success—the capacity to love, liberate, and empower—is an inside-out, bottom-up job. Being great is not about having or getting the right stuff; it’s about giving up and giving away. The career path worth following is not the four-lane highway that leads to a corner office but the dusty trail of personal transformation. There are no shortcuts, just lots of people needing you to stand with them and work with them for a better day.
You wanna be great? Jesus says. Fine, but you’d better know what you’re in for. Then go for it with all you’ve got.