Proper 20 (B)
September 21, 2003
Who is Great?
On the journey to Capernaum, the disciples
had been discussing greatness. Nothing really unusual about that. The
conversation had been on which of them was the greatest. Nothing
really wrong with that. Not really. There is a natural and universal
desire within the heart of human beings to be recognized, to be
acknowledged to be the best.
Jesus asks them
what they had been talking about. But He already knows. He heard the
comments on the journey. He does not chastise them or scold them for
thinking about greatness. He does not tell them that they ought not
to strive for greatness. Jesus does not try to make them feel guilty
about their ambitions. He simply says that they ought to understand
what is true greatness. They need to have a clear picture of what
constitutes enduring greatness.
Jesus says in
the kingdom of God, greatness – real greatness – comes in
developing the attitude and the ability of people of power to be of
service to those who are invisible. Jesus says, “If you want a place
of honor, you must become a slave and serve others.” Greatness,
prestige, honor in the kingdom of God is given to those who make
themselves the servants of those who have no power to command.
then takes a little child and says to them that it is in how we
receive this little child that you show whether or not you have
received Jesus and have become part of His kingdom. The places of
greatness in the kingdom of God are judged on how we treat the child.
is not a new notion for the people of God. It is not some radical new
idea that Jesus brings. The people of God are judged by how they
treat those who are the weakest, the lowest, the poorest. Amos the
prophet had called Israel to task for the way it abused the widow and
Jesus says the places of honor in the kingdom go to those who have
eyes to see the child. In Jesus’ day, a child was just a piece of
property to the adult male. True disciples achieve greatness not by
holding great office but by doing services to insignificant people
such as the child.
We have not completely lost
sight of that standard of greatness. Mother Teresa spent her life in
the service of the untouchable, the dying, and the abandoned. She
took in the children left to die. She did out of love what you could
not make strong men do for money.
When Jesus took
the child and said that greatness in the kingdom of God is to be
found in serving those who are vulnerable, those who are at the mercy
of power, those who are invisible, it was because in his society
children were nobodies. Children didn’t count, except as numbers,
except that you had to have some. But today that is not always the
We have to be more careful about what
Jesus is saying. In our culture a whole host of children have a lot
of clout. Business surveys know that the children control a major
portion of discretionary spending in families. In many families it is
now the child’s schedule which dictates the schedule of both parents.
Today children are not invisible. They run the show.
says that the place of honor in the kingdom goes to those who make
themselves servants of those who have no power. In our culture just
because they are children does not mean that they are automatically
insignificant pieces of society. Children warehoused in orphanages in
Romania who have been invisible need somebody to be for them. The
abandoned untouchable in India need a Mother Teresa’s touch. Some of
the children in our community are too visible, too powerful already,
too much in control for their own good. They need to be of service to
others themselves. Some children of our community are still invisible.
does not argue here that there is anything wrong with the deep and
universal desire for greatness, for a place of honor, to leave our
mark upon the world. But he says if you seek greatness in the kingdom
of God, you need to know that the places of honor goes to those who
have the ability to see and the desire to serve those who are
invisible to the rest of the world. The kingdom of God honors those
who use their resources, time, talents and power for the benefit of
those who do not have resources, time, talent, or power. Greatness in
the kingdom of God goes to those somebodies who are willing to be of
service to the nobodies of life.
Who are the
nobodies? I don’t know. I would be great if I did. They are the
people moving around our lives that we somehow never see. Maybe part
of the greatness is the ability to see these nobodies and to care for
them. Hasn’t that been part of the attraction of the suburbs and the
freeways? People drive into the cities, work and drive home and never
have to see, confront, or think about thousands of people in the
There are lots of different definitions of greatness. There are as
many different paths to greatness as there are definitions. Jesus
just wants His disciples to know that if they want to talk about
greatness in the kingdom of God, in His kingdom, then they need to
know the standard by which greatness is measure. If anyone wants the
place of honor, you must become a slave and serve others.
great ones in the kingdom of God are seen in how we receive and how
we care for those who are invisible in society, those who aren’t
suppose to matter, those who are powerless, the insignificant.
Because in the kingdom of God we are to care for them even as God in
Jesus Christ has cared for all the insignificant sinners of the
world. We are to care for the nobodies because God has cared for us
when we were nobodies. We are to offer them grace and love, because
while we were yet sinners God loved us and redeemed us.
live in the kingdom of God is to know that we have been given more
than we ever deserved and so we can give to those who do not now
deserve the gifts of recognition, service and love, and in that
service find our greatness.
The sermon brief provided by Rick Brand, Pastor of
First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC