Remember when American Idol was in its heyday and aired some of the most awful auditions at the beginning of the season? We watched as the ones who couldn’t sing, tried to sing. I always felt a mixture of sorrow and embarrassment for them.
I have the same feeling when I read the story about the mother of James and John asking Jesus for her sons to be placed in seats of honor beside him, one on his left and the other on his right (Matthew 20:20-28). Jesus answered them with, You have no idea what you’re asking. The other disciples were furious when they found out, probably because of their own selfish desire to be at the top.
Did the disciples hear anything Jesus said ever? Were they blinded by their self-centered concerns?
There are more “greatest of all” discussions among the disciples. One of them happened shortly after Jesus washed their feet and shared a meal with them. The night before Jesus was arrested and would soon die for them, the disciples argued over who of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24-30).
It’s embarrassing and unsettling to read these stories. Unsettling because I’ve done the same thing. In a different way, but the same thing. I’ve never asked for a place of honor, but I’ve thought I was more honorable. I’ve thought I was more than. More faithful, more loving, more deserving. I’ve thought I was less than. Less faithful, less loving, less deserving.
The disciples were just doing out loud what we do in our heads all the time. We don’t argue with our friends about who’s the greatest, but we think we’re favored because of the books we read, the Bible studies we teach, or the classes we take. We feel entitled to the good life because of our great faith and good deeds. Or we compare and feel less than, and in our silent quest to feel important we strive and push our way to the top of a religious system that has nothing to do with following Jesus.
Thinking to ourselves or saying it out loud, comparisons are rarely a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s what we do and we must work really hard not to give in to feeling more than or less than others. If the disciples walked with Jesus and still had trouble with this one, we know it’s going to be a difficult one for us to grasp as well.
We define greatness in terms of human endeavor, accomplishments, and status, but Jesus turned that upside down. He said things like:
But it should not be that way among you. Whoever wants to become great among you must serve the rest of you like a servant. Luke 22:26
The greatest person in the kingdom of heaven is the one who makes himself humble like this child. Matthew 18:4
Whoever accepts this little child in my name accepts me. And whoever accepts me accepts the One who sent me, because whoever is least among you all is really the greatest. Luke 9:48
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Mark 10:42-43a
Not so with us.
Father, create in us clean hearts. Let us see when we’re comparing and striving, then cause us to turn to You, our All in All, the Greatest of All.