“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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being willing to take second fiddle and serve

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Luke 22

I have never seen this connection before, and I like how the NIV in its paragraph divisions, brings all of this together in one paragraph. During the Last Supper, of all places, after Jesus told them that one of them was about to betray him, they began to argue with each other over which of them was considered to be greatest.

Jesus pointed to himself as the one who took the place assigned to servants; the more important, or considered greater people, sitting at the tables, being served. But that, because they had stood by him in his trials, he would give them a kingdom in which they’ll sit down and eat and drink, as well as sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

The ways of the world easily rub off on us. We need to take care that we neither lord it over others, or expect them to serve us. Instead we need to appeal to them, and serve them. We especially need to be sensitive to those who have been hurt, and who might easily misunderstand our actions and words. But we also need to be open to the need for rough edges to be taken off of us.

I’m afraid that the world sometimes rubs off more on us, than our way in Christ rubbing off on the people of the world. We end up imitating what we admire. We need to learn to see the beauty of Jesus, and come to value that. And then see everything else in that light. Certainly that’s the way of humility and service. And in God’s grace by the Spirit, Jesus himself can live in us and help us. In fact, because of that, we can become more like him.

That is the key, but at the same time we need to be aware, and when need be repent and become like the little children of the Father in the kingdom, loving and serving each other, and the world, in God’s love, in and through Jesus.