Who is the Greatest?
Competitiveness is something that marks the human race. Some take this to extraordinary lengths in their endeavours to become the strongest or the fastest. And you certainly don’t have to be called Muhammad Ali to believe that you are the greatest.
Schools and universities have their league tables. Kids in the playground square up to each other with their "my dad’s bigger than you dad". In fact we are prepared to compare just about everything as the ubiquitous Guinness Book of Records never tires of telling us – which edition are we up to now? This book has been regularly published since its inception in the early 1950s and itself holds a world record as the best-selling copyrighted book of all time! The 2019 edition will be released on Sept. 6 th if you’re interested.
While most of us have realised that we’re unlikely ever to become an Olympic champion or warrant entry into that famous Book of Records we do however like the idea of somehow being the best at something even if all we simply means is being a bit better than those immediately around us!
When we play games we want to win them, we want the highest score on that computer game or we want more strikes than our companions in the Bowling Alley. When there is a shared meal we secretly hope that our own contribution will prove to be the most popular bit.
Of course there are those who pretend not be bothered about how others view them but just listen to them when they start to speak about their children, grandchildren or great grandchildren! They would have you believe that no-one ever had an offspring like theirs!!
Jesus’ disciples weren’t immune from this spirit of competitiveness and this morning as we turn once more to Luke’s Gospel we find them busily arguing amongst themselves as to which of them was the greatest.
A Recurring Question
v.24 "A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest."
This wasn’t the first time that Jesus’ closest followers had discussed this question, they had talked and argued about this at least once before and Jesus then, as here, challenged them concerning their attitudes and values.
Mark records an earlier dispute in the following words:
Mk.9:31-34 Jesus "was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise." But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
As we hear the story, I trust we’re struck by the incongruous nature of the disciples’ preoccupation. Jesus had just spoken about his sufferings and all they want to talk about which of them is the greatest! The fact that they themselves were reluctant to tell Jesus what they were talking about certainly seems to suggest that they were.
He took a child, an unimportant member of the society of the day, and putting him in the midst of them Jesus said to them that those who were truly great would show it by welcoming such a child. By stooping low they would demonstrate true greatness – whichever of them would be prepared to stoop the lowest in order to serve others would prove himself to be the greatest.
Now here in Luke 22 the context is similar. Here too Jesus has been talking about his suffering and death, now but hours away. And this death would come about as a direct result of his being betrayed by one of his friends. This declaration caused his disciples to do some serious heart-searching: "Is it I?" they all asked.
But that mood didn’t continue for long and, as inappropriate as it appears, they turn quickly to this old subject of interest – which of them should be regarded as the greatest?
Their discussion hadn’t involved Jesus but he overheard what they were saying and responded not simply to their words but also to what they were thinking.
Jesus will restate what he had said on the earlier occasion and fill in his reply with a further more detailed explanation.
Matthew, Mark and Luke each refer to this theme: who is the greatest? Each gospel writer supplied their own particular details to illustrate and add colour to their individual accounts. It was obviously a matter that troubled the apostles because it was a recurring theme. And for that reason we must take it seriously too.
And it didn’t directly involve only the disciples. Matthew tells us how a mother was also implicated as she, apparently with the collusion of her two sons, tried to secure the positions of greatest importance for her two boys.
Mt.20:20-28 "Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
It is worth noting that the future of these two boys would prove to be special but probably not in ways that they or their mother were hoping for! James would be the first of the faithful apostles to lose his life in Christ’s service. His brother John would experience imprisonment and exile before he would be the last of the original disciples to taste death. This is hardly the kind of greatness that the world values!
And so when the disciples were discovered talking about their own greatness once more they might have feared a stern rebuke. After all they had already been taught on this subject once and they were at it again.
And how human all this is! Sadly, I don’t always learn the first time I’m told what to do or how to behave – do I ever? But Jesus doesn’t give up on his followers who are slow on the uptake! He didn’t give up on these men then and he won’t give up on you if you have come to him in faith and trust. You might make quite a dog’s dinner of the whole business of living the Christian life but he will continue the good work that he has begun in you!
Greatness – according to whose standards
It would appear from Jesus’ response to his disciples that he was less bothered by their interest in greatness as he was in the way they evidently allowed themselves to be influenced by what the world considers to be great. And that is a very real danger for us too surrounded as we are by a godless world intent on trying squeeze us into its mould.
It is all too easy not to stop and think but just somehow to go with the flow. It is the approach that assumes that because that is what everyone else thinks that it must be right.
So as is so often the case with the Bible Jesus invites his followers to use their brains and to think. How foolish are those who like to imagine that Christians have to leave their intelligence at the door when they become serious about their faith. True Christian faith does not mean that you must close your mind to the facts and try hard to believe what you know isn’t true. Again and again we are challenged to think: to think hard, to think long and to think deeply. The person who comes seriously to Jesus will find that he is ready to teach them and to fill their minds with the truth as he sees it. The problem with so many of us and so many of the people in the world today is that we just don’t want to be taught, we’re so happy doing things as we’ve always done them and not causing too much fuss by going against the flow.
The unfortunate attitude of so many is:
My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts!
And that is an awful philosophy to live by.
Jesus loves his disciples enough to invite them to think and to save them for making blunders in their lifestyle choices. And make no mistake this section is not about becoming a Christian or how a person can be made right with God it is about how a follower of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour will live out his life as a Christian. If you are such a person then this is for you. If you are not yet a disciple of Jesus Christ don’t imagine that a few lifestyle choices will give you the spiritual life you need. Spiritual life is a gift of God’s grace and you mustn’t imagine otherwise.
Come first to Jesus Christ for salvation and then adopt the lifestyle that he urges upon his disciples.
The way the godless world views greatness shouldn’t surprise you one little bit. You have lived surrounded by the values of this world. The media portrays these values in its books and magazines, on the radio and on TV, in films and on the internet.
Greatness in the world is achieved when a man or a woman asserts himself; when he dominates others, when he controls others, when he lords it over others and others let him do so for they recognise his "greatness". The great man is a strong man who doesn’t show any signs of weakness. The great man loves to have his name up in lights. He carefully uses his wealth and is equally careful to let others know when he is doing something that looks good. He is glad to have his name on a list of generous benefactors. And, yes he might give away huge sums of money, but he makes sure he retains more than enough to live on.
And the world admires that type of person and so many in the world aspire to be just that kind of person. What does it matter if you have to cut a few corners to get there and tread on a few rivals on your way up – that’s what you have to do to secure greatness in the eyes of the world.
According to Jesus that is not the way to true greatness.
Do you really want to be great in his eyes? Then seek out ways of serving others, of serving those who are so low that no-one else thinks they’re worth serving. Don’t allow honour and prestige to blind you. Don’t imagine that true greatness lies in how many people fawn on you but realise that there is a whole different set of values in Jesus’ kingdom.
He himself is the King, he was and is truly great and no-one would have batted an eyelid if he had waited for others to minister to him and to meet his needs. But what had he done for his own followers who knew he was far greater than they? When none of them was prepared to stoop with a bowl of water and a towel and wash the smelly, dirty feet of their friends he was! His action shocked them. Stunned by it some wanted to stop him but he insisted, insisted on stooping low in order to serve. That is true greatness.
True greatness doesn’t depend upon our status or position in society but it does depend on what we do in acts of lowly humble service.
Christian leaders ought to be lowly servants – the very word minister is not a term that speaks of status but of service. No Christian leader should lord it over the flock as though he were in some way superior to them.
And the same is true for each and every follower of Jesus Christ. None of us should act as though others owe us because of who we are, our attitude towards one another should be directed by love ("see how these Christians love one another") and worked out in acts of mutual service. In a world where everyone is clamouring for their rights the followers of Jesus are to stand out as they focus on their duties.
And my friends this is not automatically true of any of us. As Jesus declares it here this involves deliberate choice.
How am I getting on with my choosing on a day to day basis? How are you? Are we seeking to live according to Jesus’ values or those of the world? It might not be easy to live the way Jesus commends but it is good and satisfying too. If we’re all the time looking at others imagining what they ought to do for us we are likely to be frustrated when they don’t. In serving others we still might not be appreciated by others but we will have the joy of knowing that we are walking in the footsteps of the Master.
The Generosity of Spirit that marks Jesus out
Before we close this morning I want you to see how generous Jesus is in the way he deals with his disciples who were so slow to learn, so prone to making mistakes and who were on the verge of abandoning Jesus in the hour of his greatest trial.
He will shortly go on to warn these followers of how Satan had set his designs on them all. Peter in particular will be targeted and under pressure will deny three times even knowing his Lord. But Jesus knows that these men, weak though they may be, are nevertheless at heart faithful to him and he applauds them for this faithfulness:
v.28 "You are those who have stayed with me in my trials"
Jesus focuses on the positive faithfulness of those who in just a few hours will demonstrate anything but faithfulness. He doesn’t look for nor expect perfection but promises reward to men who with all their weaknesses do love him and do want to be faithful to him!
He promises them a place and a role in his kingdom specifying that they will have an important role to exercise in that kingdom. But Jesus doesn’t only appoint them to service he also promises them the tremendous reward of eating and drinking at his table in his kingdom.
As far as Jesus is concerned victory is secure and he promises reward to those who genuinely follow him.
There are some tremendously important implications for us in this. Let us learn to be generous and affirmative of the efforts and the service of other Christians. That service will fall far short of perfection and their best efforts will always be marked with short-coming and failure but we should not allow our perception of those short-comings to dominate and determine how we relate to other believers. If Jesus could so applaud and reward a group of men whom he knew to fall far short of perfection who are we to act in a totally different spirit?
This will not mean that we have to pretend that others are perfect in all that they do but it does mean that we will not treat blips and slips as somehow revealing their fundamental character to the exclusion of everything else.
And as Jesus appreciated these men he also told them of his appreciation.
I’m not sure that those of us who are steeped in British are particularly good at simply voicing our appreciation to others but as Christians it is the culture of Jesus that should direct us more and more as we mature in our faith and that maturity will show itself not in mercilessly pointing out flaws and weaknesses but is spotting the good and highlighting it. As the apostle Peter himself would later put it it:
1Pet.4:8 "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins."