“Who is the greatest?” and the problem of comparison

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9

We inevitably draw up comparisons in our minds as to which of us is better in this or that. We all tend to like to think that we might be better than someone else at such and such, and many of us are competitive by nature. But when we do so, we play into the hand of the world, the flesh and the devil. And we’re not like Jesus.

In the first place I might say, leaving the above text for the moment, to compare ourselves with each other is simply unwise, as we read elsewhere from Paul, who I would imagine, considering all that is said about and by him in scripture, was quite competitive himself.

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.

2 Corinthians 10

Paul was fighting the false apostles for the sake of the gospel, who were calling into question his ministry based on their false view of what spirituality was. And one sure key to see through them was how they compared themselves to others, and specifically in this case to Paul and surely all those with Paul. They were superior; they were the spiritual elite. They could speak better, and surely their content was better too, in their minds. And no doubt they did dazzle, since Paul had to devote an entire section of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13) to both refute and expose them, as well as indicate what makes one who is truly a messenger of the gospel. By their actions and comparing themselves as superior, they were preaching a different Christ, and acting by a different spirit other than the Holy Spirit. Paul’s example was one of humility and weakness, and the gospel as well as the Lord, who essentially is that gospel, and specifically him crucified, was the one people would come to see in Paul’s ministry, not Paul himself.

But back to our Lord’s words to his disciples. He took a little child, embraced her or him, and made it plain that this child was an indication of what true greatness is. That they were to become like this little child, last of all, and the servant of all, even like he was already, to be completed through the cross. Elsewhere on the subject of who is the greatest, Jesus told them that nothing less than a conversion, a change of heart is needed (Matthew 18).

I am so easily given to comparison, particularly in matters in which I’m competitive. Probably in most, I don’t think I am, including how I write, teach and preach. I know better, having learned over the years. In these areas, I have come to see clearly how we’re all in this together, and how much we need each other. And how it’s like snowflakes, or so many other illustrations from creation, how there’s no end to God’s creativity, and how therefore we miss out completely when we compare ourselves or someone else as better than others. Paul ended up being better than the false apostles he had to oppose, because for him it was about Jesus, not about demonstrating how great he was. In fact in his brokenness as a jar of clay (read the rest of that great letter, 2 Corinthians), Jesus was more clearly seen.

And so let’s appreciate the good gifts in others, and be glad about areas they may excel in and do better than us. Remembering that we’re all special in God’s eyes, and by his design. Both in creation and in new creation in and through Jesus, the one who is the measure of true greatness.

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