In Mark 9:33-37, Jesus asks his disciples what they were talking about on the road. What they should have been talking about was what he was talking about with them: his impending betrayal, death, and resurrection, the Most Important Events in the History of the World. But instead they were talking about…
…who was top dog. Who was the Best Disciple. Who was greatest.
Jesus, seeing a teaching moment (with doubtless an eye-roll to heaven), gathers them and teaches them. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” I like the addition of “of all” to both those latter phrases. Just to make sure they don’t draw the circle of service too tightly—”Well, sure, I’m happy to serve all of the elite! I’m happy to serve the most powerful, glamorous, talented, and accomplished people! I’m not too proud to take a serving place among the very best,” etc.—he takes a child, “a little child,” and puts him or her front and centre. This one, absolutely lowest on the social hierarchy, is the one you must not just tolerate, or even serve, but welcome. For “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” And the dark implication is clear: Reject this little one, and you reject Jesus, and the Father. And if you do that (Mark records Jesus saying just a few verses later), you’d be better off drowning in the depths of the sea (v 42).
Jesus establishes the widest possible range of service. No one is beyond his gaze, no one beyond his help. He practices what he preaches, serving lepers, foreigners, the ritually unclean, the demon-possessed—even little kids. What Mark also shows us, however, is that Jesus really is The Greatest. He will as readily stoop to serve a beggar as he will rise to rebuke a storm or raise the dead. It’s all in a day’s work, all his Father’s business. And Mark shows us, furthermore, that Jesus serves everyone, but belongs only to his Father. He at once manages to demonstrate paradigm-shattering humility and breathtaking dignity. Lots of people want to tell him what to do, but he listens hard to only One Voice.
This is how we avoid merely kowtowing as we serve. This is how we avoid surrendering to others’ agenda. We humbly recognize need before us—nothing should be too small or too lowly for our compassionate attention—but we then immediately check in with our Master amid whatever cries for help we hear—without or within. “What do you want done here, Lord? I’ll do anything you say—and nothing you won’t.”
That is how to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven: obey the King. Jesus did. And he was, indeed, The Greatest.