true greatness

“The two conditions of true greatness are humility and service; not to be the servant of friends, or kindred, or of a class, or even of church members, but of all, like Christ.” (“The People’s New Testament” B.W. Johnson, 1891)

In Mark’s Gospel chapter 9 there is a passage in which Jesus and his disciples are walking to Capernaum. As they walk, Jesus is teaching them about the critical event that is to come. It is important to realise that this group he is speaking to is his inner circle, the group he is relying on to follow in his footsteps and to continue to spread the Good News when he ascends. So, Jesus pulls no punches. He avoids metaphor and any figurative language. He speaks plainly and straight forward about what is going to happen. He says, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31)

The disciples, for their part, see his lips moving and they hear the words come out of his mouth. The sentences are plain and clearly spoken, yet the meaning and the truth of those words are still lost on them. Still, they ask no clarification, and out of confusion and fear, they do not ask even a single question. They just don’t get it.

Now, Jesus realizes that they are having a hard time understanding the basic principles of the path he is walking and the path that he is calling them to follow him on. Yet, mercifully and true to form, Jesus does not give up. So, following their dumbfounded silence, our Gospel today shows Jesus clearly and firmly demonstrating two of the basic principles of the path of Jesus Christ, principles of Humility and Hospitality.

Humility comes first, and obviously this is a lesson they really needed. The words of Jesus telling them of his betrayal, death and resurrection have no sooner stopped ringing in the empty silence of their lack of understanding, that the disciples being to argue with each other about which of them is the greatest. So, Jesus patiently waits until their journey to Capernaum is over to make his point about the guiding principle of Humility, with a perfectly placed bucket of cold reality. He says, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Their response is silence, but a least this time there is some understanding in their silence.

James, in his letter in the New Testement, warns us from the things that are not in keeping with the spirit of Humility. James writes (in chapter 3 verse 16), “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” James understood that the path that Jesus is calling all his disciples to in our gospel passage today is a path of Humility, with no place whatsoever for pride, envy, or selfish ambition. Humility is fundamental to following Jesus. Paul in his letter to the Philippians (chapter 2:5-8) explains how Jesus exemplified that humility in his life and that we are to follow when he wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” It is clear that Paul in his letter also understands the point Jesus was making when he spoke so plainly to the disciples on their walk to Capernaum.

Now that Jesus has the disciples attention in our Gospel, having caught them arguing over which of them is the greatest and leaving them speechless, Jesus encourages humility of by saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” It is by adding the title of “servant of all” that Jesus leads his disciples to a second principle of the path he leading them too, the principle of Hospitality. The gospel passage continues with Jesus demonstrating what he means. “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”” (Mark 9:36-37) Here Jesus illustrates the sort of humble hospitality he is teaching by first placing among his disciples the weakest and most vulnerable of humanity, a little child and by then lifting that child into his loving and gentle embrace.

Humility and Hospitality are two incredibly important qualities of Christian Discipleship. The lessons Jesus taught to his disciples are lessons that easily apply to you and I today and we strive to live out our faith in the society and culture of our time. In our time, humility is a quality easily lost in a society where self promotion and self aggrandizing behavior are normal, even expected. Wikipedia makes this helpful statement in its definition of Christian Humility, it says,

“In essence, humility is obviously not thinking highly of yourself nor is it thinking lowly of yourself. For both of these are pride. Humility is simply not thinking of yourself at all.”

As for Hospitality, in the society and culture of our time, friends are easily welcomed but the stranger has become increasingly feared or ignored. Yet when you add the call to Hospitality to the life of those who are humble, as Jesus does, then the welcome of hospitality is both honestly and easily offered to all, stranger and friend.
This is the wisdom Jesus demonstrates to his disciples today and to us today. As James writes of Christ’s wisdom in his letter, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18)


The Rev’d Rob Park