Mark 9: 33 – 37   Who’s the Greatest? September 19, 2021  



Who’s the Greatest?

Mark 9: 33 – 37


(preached September 19, 2021)


Because I live in Springfield, about an hour’s drive from here, I spend a fair amount of time in the car on the days I come to Millbury.  As I ride along, sometimes I can’t help noticing the bumper stickers on the other cars.


The bumper stickers can be serious or silly.  The messages on bumper stickers can make a statement about the drivers of the cars: where they’ve traveled, or what political candidate they support, or who’s their favorite baseball team.


Sometimes I see bumper stickers honoring students who do well in school.  Years ago, when I lived in the eastern part of the state, these bumper stickers would say, “My child is an honor student at North Reading Middle School, or High School,” and so on.  I’m sure these bumper stickers were intended to encourage academic achievement.  But have you noticed the variations that have shown up reacting to the “honor student” bumper sticker?  It’s caused sort of a backlash.  For example, you can now see cars with the message, “My dog is smarter than your honor student.”  Or another one that says, “My kid sells term papers to your honor student.”


Maybe the people who choose those bumper stickers are just tired of the boasting.  Maybe they feel that parental boasting has gotten out of hand.  There’s nothing new about parents boasting of their children’s accomplishments, of course.  But some folks may feel that parents are taking it to a whole new level these days, and not just on bumper stickers.  You can find “proud parent” T shirts to boast of just about anything.  I once saw one that said, “Proud Parent of a Vegetarian.”


What makes parents brag about their kids like that?  One reason may be that our society is so competitive.  Of course competition is nothing new. We see some competition going on in our gospel passage for today, from the gospel of Mark.  Jesus has been traveling with his disciples through Galilee, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, preaching the good news that God’s kingdom is at hand.  In the midst of all these acts of service, the disciples have been arguing.  Jesus has picked up on the tension between them.

Jesus seems to know, without having to be told, that they’ve been arguing about who’s the greatest.  Mark doesn’t tell us if they’ve been arguing about physical prowess, or family prestige, or something else.  That doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus anyway.  He nips the argument in the bud.  He transforms the argument into a teaching opportunity.  He tells them, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”


Then, to illustrate, he picks up a child in his arms.  Hugging the child, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”


In Jesus’ time, children were looked at very differently from the way we look at them today.  Parents didn’t boast about their kids in the way some parents boast today.  The family as we know it, where childhood is seen as a special time for learning, didn’t exist.  The idea that childhood is a time for everything from ice skating lessons to trips to Disney World – that idea of childhood didn’t exist.  As soon as children could walk, they worked just like the older members of the family.  They weren’t especially valued.


By picking up a child and holding her in his arms, Jesus was showing dramatically that the last shall be first; that the one who is considered of no account has great value in the eyes of God.


You have to wonder though if the disciples got it.  You have to wonder if the message sank in.  It sure doesn’t look that way later in Mark, when the disciples are scolding people for bringing children to Jesus for a blessing.  Once again he has to remind them that children are especially loved by God.


It’s not surprising that the message didn’t sink in.  The idea that the last shall be first, that the greatest is the one who humbles himself to become servant of all, that idea goes against something very deep in us.  It goes against the drive within us to compete: to prove we’re better than the next person.


That drive to compete is part of being human.  What matters is how we direct that drive.  We can use that drive to prove we’re better than the next person.  Or we can use that drive to bring out the best in ourselves.  Take sports, for example.  Competing in sports can push us to bring out our best, to perfect our game, to meet the opposing team and, yes, to win!  And in the spirit of sports there’s nothing wrong with that.


Jesus never put people down for doing their best – in fact, he encouraged people to “Let [their] light shine” (Matthew 5: 16).  There’s nothing wrong with doing our best.  Competitive sports and games can help us do that.  Speaking for myself, I’m not much of a football player, but put me in front of a Scrabble board, or a game of Trivial Pursuit, or any game where you compete about what you know, and I’m off and running.


The drive to compete is part of being human. We can use that drive to prove that we’re better than the next person.  Or we can use that drive to bring out the best of what we can be.  It seems to me that Jesus is all in favor of us bringing out our best, using our gifts.  He’s all in favor of us making the most of what God has given us.  He urges his followers not to hide their light under a bushel.  But it depends on what we use our gifts for.  Are we using our gifts to prove that we’re superior to the next person, or using them to give glory to God?


Some years ago a movie was made about competitive running.  The title of the movie was “Chariots of Fire.”  In one scene in the movie, the runner Eric Liddell is talking to the man he’s competing against, Harold Abraham.  Liddell describes the joy he finds in running, a joy that washes over him when he feels God’s presence in his success.  He says, “When I run, I feel his pleasure.”


The drive to compete is part of being human.  We all feel that drive to prove ourselves better than the next person.  And there is a way of using the gifts God gave us to prove we’re better than the next person.  But Jesus calls us not to use our gifts to prove we’re superior, but to use our gifts to glorify God, the One who gave us those gifts.


Each of us has a choice about how we use the gifts God has given us.  We can use them to show we’re superior.  Or we can use them simply to become the best we can be in God’s eyes.  When we strive to become the best we can be in God’s eyes, we draw attention, not to our own greatness, but to the greatness of God.  Then we, as Jesus says, “let [our] light shine before people, that they may see [our] good works and glorify God, who is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16).















Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 17