Greatness has many definitions. How we use the term is often loaded with meaning and symbolism. The world offers a definition that typically includes ideas like big, more, victory, recognition, followers, prosperity, might, strength, etc. The world always wants to be moving towards greatness. Except we never really arrive there. There is always something else that needs to happen in order to actually be great.
How does Jesus define greatness?
It’s a topic that comes up in this coming Sunday’s Gospel reading.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when [Jesus] was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
Who is the greatest? What is greatness? Even the disciples get caught up in it. It’s reassuring to me that humanity hasn’t changed all that much in 2000 years. We still don’t get it.
Here is Jesus’ answer to the question of what greatness is:
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 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.’
Greatness to Jesus is not about being front and center and grabbing all the attention. It isn’t about having the best economy, biggest and strongest military, the most money or resources. It isn’t about having the most likes or followers on social media. Greatness isn’t about a nation at all according to Jesus. It isn’t about who you can destroy.
Instead, it’s about who you value and how you value them. It’s about being a servant to those who society finds to be without value.
Children in Jesus’ time were a burden in Jesus’ time. They only gained value when they could work and produce. But Jesus’ response to the question of greatness is different. One is great when they recognize the humanity of others who society excludes and devalues. One is great when they empower and remind others of their humanity – when they take what they already have and give it to others. When we build up those around us, rather than build walls and fortresses to protect what we have.
Last week we heard Jesus ask the disciples – “Who do you say that I am?” And he went on to say:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Who do we want to follow? Jesus or someone else? We can answer who we actually follow based on how we define the words that we use. Are we living by Jesus’ definition of greatness or someone else?
Last week we heard Jesus ask the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” This question is for us also. Who do you say that Jesus is? Is he just a nice guy? Is he someone we should listen to when times are good? Or is he someone who we listen to, regardless of how we are doing? Is Jesus someone we can push aside when it gets uncomfortable and inconvenient for us to follow him?
Who do you say Jesus is? And whose definition of greatness are you following? Who is the leader that you follow?