Who is The Greatest?

This week’s reflection, on the lectionary Gospel reading Mark 9.30-37, is offered by The Reverend Augustine Nwaekwe, Chaplain of Ostend-Bruges and Knokke and Bishop’s BAME Advisor & Vocations Adviser.

If you would like to contribute to this lectionary blog, please contact Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org 

 

 This tender image of ‘Our Lady of Regla’, painted by Harmonia Rosales, implicitly illustrates the importance that Jesus himself gave to welcoming and cherishing children referred to in this week’s lectionary Gospel.* (Mark 9.35-37)

The human aspiration to be great is not in itself evil. We live in a world where competition is a common phenomenon. From local to international markets, to sports, jobs, education, social media, even to the practice of religion where there is often intolerance, behind it lies the desire to outdo the other: competition. Competition is not itself something bad either. For example, competition in sports can promote friendship. However, to know where to draw the line between healthy and unhealthy competition is a matter of personal judgement and discipline. I have seen opposing fans of two notable football teams clash violently at a football stadium. As we well know, history is littered with many wars between nations and ethnic groups seeking to wield power over others in a show of greatness.

 

In our lectionary text from St Mark (Mark 9.30-37), the disciples argue (and I will add ‘contest or compete’) over the question of who was the greatest. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had approached Jesus with a special request. ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom’ (Matthew 20.21). James and John’s mother was expressing a desire many of us have for recognition and promotion, not only for ourselves but also for members of our family. Sometimes, people try to cut corners to attain the top position, and people at times use bonds of family or friendship, or even bribery, to get positions they aspire to.

The Gospels do not first present the disciples of Jesus Christ as people of faith. They were not invited to discipleship because of their solid faith in Jesus. They were ordinary men who also had human aspirations. It would be fair to say that many of them did not know what they were getting into when they accepted the invitation to join the Jesus Movement. Their ignorance as to the nature and meaning of the mission of Jesus resulted in serious doubt and discord at moments in their apprenticeship. This was largely the case until after the resurrection of Jesus and their experience of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

The Gospels do not shed light on the identities of the followers who left the group as a result of uncertainty surrounding the identity of Jesus. However, while following John’s gospel in mid-summer, and particularly for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity (John 6.59-69), we read that some of his disciples complained of his teaching as being too hard to understand. Jesus had spoken of himself as the bread of life, and his blood as drink for the human satisfaction of hunger and thirst. ‘When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ At the end of the discussion, ‘… many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.’ Jesus asked the rest of the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Peter (as always, the first to respond, and to speak for others (ironically, including Judas Iscariot), ‘Lord, to whom can we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

Jesus’ revolutionary teachings and modus operandi were challenging for many wanting to be part of the Jesus Movement. St Mark points to the clear lack of understanding among the disciples when Jesus spoke about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. He had earlier given this prediction in the previous chapter for which Peter rebuked him, and he in turn rebuked Peter, referring to him as Satan, for putting his mind on human things rather than divine things (8.31-33). In his second prediction, the disciples were afraid to ask any questions even though they did not understand (9.31-32). What is there that was too hard to comprehend? This was nothing like a parable anymore! But in the light of Jewish messianic expectation, a messiah is not expected to be killed or to die in the hands of those he has come liberate and to save. For this reason, Peter needed to rebuke him. Peter needed to remind him of the need to live up to the expectation and standard of a messiah ‘the anointed saviour’.

As churchgoers or private Bible readers, we have learned the stories and parables such that we can make meaning out of them, but the disciples as the first listeners and learners of these events struggled to grasp and deal with them. How could they have made sense of associating greatness with humility and servanthood? Could that be the reason Jesus could not associate himself with the title ‘Messiah’ and would always warm his disciples not to tell anyone? Earlier in Mark’s story, Jesus also warned the demons to shut up, and forbade them from identifying him in public (Mark 3. 11-12). He preferred to lay low, choosing the way of humility and service in place of royalty and heroism.

Generally, the way we perceive life and the things around us has a way of either liberating or enslaving us. It could lead us to deeper faith, to great confusion or into deeper unbelief — when we can see things only in our own eyes. However, to perceive life in the way of the gospel enables us to give priority and true allegiance to God’s will and purposes rather than seeking to satisfy our human egos and desires. Only God’s will — as we pray in the Lord’s prayer: ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ — has the power to enrich our humanity, to heal the wounds inflicted on God’s creation, and to restore our broken and divided world.

The gospel invites us to the learning and understanding of God’s will in the most radical and humble way through a life of service and sacrifice. Our pioneer is Jesus — the master, the son of God, the creator of heaven and earth, who himself was a servant. It is in the ‘self-emptying of our life’ that we are truly able to offer life to each other in the most humble and transformative way. This explains why St Mark refers to the life and ministry of Jesus at the very beginning of  his story as ‘good news’ of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. The radical nature of the gospel is redemptive and life-transforming for those who welcome it and accept to be guided by it.

Our response to the gospel requires both faith and action; in other words, to believe and to behave, our faith therefore must be accompanied with humility and service (action). As Jesus says, the greatest is the one who serves. This means that we may choose to compete and aspire to ‘outdo’ each other in humble service. It is through loving and humble service to others that we can truly align our aspirations to God’s will. To be transformed by the gospel requires us to constantly set aside our self-centered wills and perspectives, with the knowledge that ‘we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (Ephesians 2.10).

Yes, greatness is something we all aspire to in both personal and professional life. How does one become great? In the business world, you perhaps need a good education, or great talent to secure a well-paid job. Others have created jobs. Some of the world’s great companies have been created by individuals who today are regarded as great people. They ‘serve’ people through what they have created. But there are others who do not belong to the business world, and have also been acclaimed as great or influential people because of their service to others — Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, for example. They served their nations with distinction and inspired the wider world. One particular feature these individuals have in common is their radical understanding of leadership as offering of self to others in service.

Below are seven quotes I like to refer to in relation to servant-leadership, with that of Jesus at the top.

1 ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’  Jesus Christ.

  1. ‘A great man is always willing to be little.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  2. ‘Nothing liberates our greatness like the desire to help, the desire to serve.’ Marianne Williamson.
  3. ‘Whoever renders service to many puts himself in line for greatness — great wealth, great return, great satisfaction, great reputation, and great joy.’ Jim Rohn.
  4. ‘No one who has come to true greatness has not felt in some degree that his life belongs to the people, and what God has given them he gives it for mankind.’ Phillips Brooks.
  5. ‘There is no great path to greatness than true service. He who knows how to serve from a true heart and spirit knows what it takes to be truly great.’ Ernest Agyemang Yeboah.
  6. ‘The measure of a man’s greatness is not the number of servants he has, but the number of people he serves’. John Hagee.

In going through this lectionary text, among many other songs of worship, we may wish to reflect again on the lyrics of Graham Kendrick’s song ‘From Heaven You Came Helpless Babe.’ May the sound and power of its music continue to re-echo in our hearts.

 

So let us learn how to serve

And in our lives enthrone Him

Each other’s needs to prefer

For it is Christ we’re serving.

 

In the words of Mother Teresa, ‘a life not lived for others is not a life.’

*****

  • The picture used above is the image of the Virgin Mary known today as ‘Our Lady of Regla’ which dates from the earliest times of Christianity. Among her devotees was prominent St. Augustine (+430 A.D.); father and doctor of the faith, Bishop of Hippo and defender of the Orthodox Christian faith.
     
    St Augustine had an image of the Black Virgin in his oratory, and it was the Mother of God who gave him the ‘rule’ (‘regla’ in Spanish) to direct his monastic community. This explains the ancient title of ‘Our Lady of the Rule of St. Augustine’ that was later given to the image in Spain.
     
    After the death of St. Augustine, a persecution against Christians arose in the African church. This caused Deacon Cyprian, and other disciples of the Blessed Augustine, to flee to the coasts of southern Spain; bringing with them the venerated image whose devotion spread under the name of Libyan Virgin or ‘Beautiful African’. From there the devotion later spread to very distant lands like Belgium, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Venezuela and the United States.
     

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