Who is the greatest?


Mark 9.30-37

Those above a certain age will remember the television series Dallas which ran for thirteen years from 1978. I don’t mind admitting I was addicted to it. It told the stories of the two brothers Bobby and J R Ewing and their constant power struggles with each other and with people like Cliff Barnes for control of the Texas oil industry. There was surely no-one who had not heard of J R Ewing. Dallas was briefly revived a few years ago.

J R Ewing became infamous for his lust for power, and his determination to have power whatever the cost. And one line he said in the revival has stuck in my mind ever since, at it seemed to be so true of many people who achieve power in our world. At the age of 80, still craving power and money, J R says his son John Ross: Nobody gives you power – real power is something you take.

The Ewings are, of course, fiction. But that view of J R, that real power is something you take for yourself, is all too prevalent in our society – and it’s nothing new. It has always been there. There will always be people who crave power – and the only way they feel they can gain power is by taking it from others. Power over others can take different forms of course – it might be political power over others, or power in the workplace enabling you to boss or bully others, or wealth that gives you power over others who cannot even make ends meet, or that gives you a feeling of superiority.

But to have that kind of power that many yearn for, someone has to be powerless. And the more people who are powerless the greater the power of those in power over them. This is so prevalent in all societies that there is even a strand of theological study about it – it is known as the Theology of Power and Powerlessness. The Bible has a great deal to say about power and powerlessness in society, as well as about God’s (and Jesus’s) bias toward the latter rather than the former.

The thing is, that in order for those who have power to continue to exercise and enjoy their power, those who are powerless need to remember their place in the order of things. And it’s a problem if they get above themselves. Status achieved through power and wealth and control is – and always has been – a part of human society. And a part of our human condition is that once having achieved status, we generally don’t like giving it up.

The disciples were no different from anyone else. Yes – they have left their previous lives behind in order to follow Jesus. They have listened to his teaching – though a lot of the time they seemed to have a complete inability to grasp what his message was. They have seen the way he cared for the poor and the sick – the outcasts of Jewish society of the time. They have seen the way he treated women differently, and the way he spoke to non-Jews. They have seen his bias toward the powerless and against the powerful. And what was the result? They still worry about their status. They worry about who is the greatest. What concerns them is who is top disciple.

Look at our gospel reading today. Jesus has been teaching the disciples that he is to be betrayed and killed, and then after three days rise again. They don’t understand what he means. Do they ask him to explain more clearly? No – they’re afraid to ask. Do they discuss among themselves, “What do you think he means?” No – not a bit of it. What they do is argue about which of them is the greatest.

Jesus, of course, isn’t fooled one bit. He asks them what they are arguing about, knowing full well what the answer is.

And he goes on to give them a lesson in where true power lies. You want to be first, he says, then you must be last of all, you must be a servant to everyone else. The gospel complete overturns the natural order – you must make yourself powerless in society in order to achieve true greatness.

And he takes a child in his arms. He calls on them to emulate the child and to welcome the child among them. And this is a hugely important lesson for them. For we are dealing here with a society where children had no social status whatsoever, especially if they were girls. Forget about being the greatest, says Jesus. Forget about having status, power over others. Forget about ensuring that others have less power and wealth than you do. This may be the world’s way but it is not to be your way. This is not the way to feel good about yourself.

And Jesus says to them if you want to achieve true greatness in God’s eyes, if you want to discover what God’s power is about, then you are to welcome those like this child without social status into your midst – you are to make space in your lives for those who have nothing and whom the world sees as being nothing – for to do so is to welcome and make space in your lives for me.

For those who would be first must be last. Those who would find status before God do so by debasing themselves and serving the needy. A seeming contradiction, and yet a way of life that ultimately the disciples found truly liberating. And so can we.

Welcome a child, says Jesus and you welcome me – and you welcome the one who sent me. This passage does not present us with a rather sweet scene where Jesus cuddles a small child and welcomes them to Sunday School. We need to recognise that this is a direct challenge by Jesus to the dominant values of human societies, and a challenge to our society. It is a challenge that says that every single person has worth and importance and is someone to be loved and served. It’s no wonder that the rich and the powerful of Jesus’ time – the religious and political leaders – felt a need to stop such dangerously radical teaching by putting Jesus to death. It has been the same ever since. Those who hold temporal power do not want to be reminded of the message of Jesus and his bias to the poor and underprivileged. When the Church speaks out on behalf of the powerless there are always those in positions of power who criticise it.

As the disciples came to fully understand the message of Jesus after the resurrection, their lives came to mirror that of their Lord, the one to whom they committed themselves. And this is the great challenge for us – to what extent do our lives mirror the life of Jesus. Are we willing to reach out and welcome, are we willing to serve, those with no status or position or who are different or who do not conform?

For the child that Jesus took and cradled in his arms is a representative of all those to whom society accords no status. A representative of the poor, the destitute, the lonely, the unloved, the immigrant, the asylum-seeker, the homeless, the beggar – any whom society looks down upon and sees of no consequence.

Are we willing to grasp the upside-down, inside-out good news of Jesus? The good news that says the world has got completely the wrong idea about who is important and who isn’t, about who should be looked up to and who should be looked down upon. Are we ready to risk – for it is a risk – being last, putting ourselves as Jesus did into the role of a powerless servant, and serving others, instead of wanting to be first and only serving ourselves?

Throughout the gospels we see Jesus teaching that leadership and authority among the Christian community are not based upon wealth or social class or political position. They are not based on worldly power. The Church has not always got it right, but leadership and authority in the Christian community are based upon service and humility. And this kind of servant leadership is not just for the church and for those who exercise some kind of senior position within it. It must be our witness, the witness of each and every one of us, to a world that has by and large forgotten, if it ever knew, how to love and serve the powerless.

I began by quoting J R Ewing’s words from the TV series Dallas, “Real power is something you take.”

But the message of Jesus is: “Real power is something you are given by God when you give all your power away. Real power, God’s power, is something you get when you choose to confound the world and  become powerless.”

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he said. And he took a child and put it among them.