"On the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest." (Mark 9:34)
Will you be remembered as a "great" person? What would it take for you to become one?
We are probably all familiar with boxer Muhammad Ali's famous comment, "I am the greatest," although we may not know something he subsequently added, which was: "I'm not the greatest; I'm the double greatest! Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round!" So clearly he was not a man troubled by modesty!
Jesus is quite clear what true greatness is, and about how to become great. And it is radically counter-cultural. When we read Mark 9:30-37, we see that this is what he says:
1. It's not wrong to want to be great! Nowhere does Jesus actually criticise a person for pursuing true greatness or true significance. That's because he created us to be great and to be significant – to come to the end of our lives and feel that they were well spent and well invested. It's just that we often go about it the wrong way.
2. The attitude of a great person. True greatness means putting others first and ourselves last (v35). True greatness is not about titles or status, but about our attitude.
3. The actions of a great person. Firstly, true greatness means becoming the servant of everyone (v35 again). As one preacher has said, commenting on this verse: "It's fairly easy to cause almost total riot in any community by just giving people different jobs to what they're doing at the moment. Suddenly, when we're threatened, pecking orders matter, and if we have got to do those grotty little jobs, or spend time with people we don't want to spend time with, we do at least want to be noticed! We like people to thank us for it: it's what someone has called 'doing the hidden, humble jobs in the limelight'."
Secondly, in particular, true greatness means welcoming children (v36-37). Why does Jesus bring in children? The answer is that children pretty much take for granted that you will take care of them. As someone has written: "They don't make a big deal out of the fact that you pour your life out for them. They don't generally thank you. And so children prove, more clearly than any other kind of people, whether you are truly great or not – whether you live to serve or live to be praised."
I once knew a retired lady who was talking with a friend the same age as her about Jesus' injunctions to welcome children. Their church sadly had no youngsters. The friend, however, was dismissive of Christ's words, preferring a congregation of the elderly: "That was then!" she said. "This is now!" How tragically far that is from what Jesus teaches us here!
One thing is crucial in caring for children: is it done in Jesus name? "Whoever receives one such child in my name welcomes me," he says. Ministering to children in any other way does not fulfil the will of Jesus.
4. The model for a great person. True greatness means emulating what Jesus did (v30-32). What Jesus asks of us here is simply what he did himself: "Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). We cannot replicate his sacrifice but we can emulate his sacrificial attitude. And as we reflect on all he has done for us on the cross we will feel motivated more and more to act this way towards others.
As Christians we are called to be "downwardly mobile" – to be a "zero" rather than a hero. Martin Luther King Jr summed it up well when he said that a street-sweeper can be truly great, adding: "He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lives a great street-sweeper who did his job well!'"
And the same goes for all of us – whatever we are doing for the rest of this day.
The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England.