I Am (not) The Greatest

Mark 9:30-37 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, September 20, 2015

“Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all . . .” (Mark 9:35)

They were not quarreling over a first century version of whether Madison Bumgarner of the Giants or Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers was the better pitcher . . .
They were not quarreling over a first century version of whether Madison Bumgarner of the Giants or Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers was the better pitcher . . .

I do not read the Gospels as factual history lessons.

Give me an “Amen!”

I think the Gospels have a host of mistakes. Often (for example) the geography is wrong, as if the writers never walked in Jesus’ footsteps.

Give me an “Amen!”

I wonder if some actions or attitudes of the disciples toward Jesus in the Gospels were actually what later believers did or said in the Christian communities decades after the Nazarene’s ministry?

Give me an “Amen!”

In Mark 9, the twelve “original” disciples straggled along with Jesus through Galilee, receiving his insights while traipsing from Hither to Yon. According to Mark, they didn’t grasp Jesus’ teachings. Dullards! Slackers! In fairness to those dozen dudes, all followers of Jesus—including the 21st century versions—may feel intimidated when trying to learn from and live toward a Christ-like way of life.

And yet in Mark 9 those same twelve, who apparently didn’t understand a lick of what Jesus said, loudly argued over who was the greatest.

They were not quarreling over a first century version of whether Madison Bumgarner of the Giants or Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers was the better pitcher. No, no! Those twelve in Mark’s Gospel were debating who among the twelve was numero uno. As in, which disciple would sit at the right hand of Jesus in heaven? Which disciple was most compassionate, most enlightened, and most humble?

Jesus confronted them with, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.”

I’ll bet—even with my questions about Gospel accuracy—Jesus likely said that! I’d also bet, whomever Mark’s words were first intended for, the author knew the original disciples’ grandiose opinions of themselves applied to that later community. Furthermore, I am confident, and (gulp) ashamed, that it applies to me.

Why do I think I am so special?

In my current ministry in a hospice, I support families after a loved one’s death. I phone them, hoping to learn how they’re doing. I want to make sure they know about our counselors, support groups, and other resources. Before calling, I study the medical records. In notes written by colleagues (mostly social workers and chaplains), I learn about family conflicts before the death. Was the loved one’s death difficult or peaceful? If there were other recent family tragedies, will this death create deeper complications for grief? When scanning these charts, which chronicle the patient’s days, months, and even years in hospice, I witness “mistakes” those chaplains and social workers have made. They misspelled names! They generalized about a caregiver’s fears or hopes, leaving out relevant details for future grief support! They neglected to properly record a required activity! (For example, a social worker must make a condolence call to the family after the death. But sometimes they forget to chart it!)

Unlike Jesus’ disciples I’ve never openly argued my “better” position, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have made my co-workers mistakes!

Right. Sure.

Darn the inaccurate, biased, fault-filled Gospels. Their stories nail me every single damn time.

Why am I so like Jesus’ first disciples? How can humble, servant-oriented, compassionate, and empathetic me be such a jerk?

imrsAnd maybe, because I’m aware of my “jerk-ness,” I can cautiously anguish over recent events. For weeks, national news has followed the peculiar, troubling actions of Kim Davis—the Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky—who refused to issue marriage licenses. Her Christian beliefs about same-gender marriage apparently inspired her to think she is following “God’s authority.”

Why does she think she is “the greatest?” Or “special?”

Jesus’ teachings demand so much. Don’t they sometimes seem . . . impossible? And yet, they are easy. There is no small print in “love your neighbors.” We selfish followers, when given the chance to be a servant to all, are selective about what all means. We flawed followers—progressive or conservative, born again or baptized once thank you very much—avoid becoming “like children.” Instead we are adults debating and comparing our so-called greatness.

Kim Davis will come and go. She will be, by next month or next year, a forgotten curiosity. Her claim of following God’s law over human law is a blade of grass in a drought. But there will always be another like her, claiming by words or actions to be “the greatest,” trumpeting insider “knowledge” about God’s expectations and judgments.

Sadly, in a small, real way, I understand. It is also my daily struggle. Amen.

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  1. I try not to be, I say with my lips I am not , I have read the Creeds ,but finally I am by temperament, inclination and observation, a Manichean. Of course it is heresy, but I live in an age so theologically stochastic there is not enough coherence to support a heresy, a time when syntax itself has inadequate sophistication to produce a split infinitive. I am special only in the sense that some of my students were “special” or “exceptional”.
    Kim Davis ( not the person, the phenomenon) frightens me. My world view has room for Hitler, Stalin, all Dear Leaders of North Korea, etc. That which they have made love to and become absorbed by is getting a lot of bang for its buck. If However, it is willing to put in the time and effort to suborn and use one of our siblings and she barely smarter than an oyster if equally sessile, none of us are safe. Sila fide indeed.

    1. Thanks, Mickey. I suspect none of us are safe. On we stumble. Sometimes it seems safer to stay inside and shut the curtains. But I still believe, for every Kim Davis, there are a hundred folks equally wounded and wonderful that are worth meeting . . .

  2. We had our own version of Kim Davis over here in the UK. They claimed the christian position. I love that inspite of all scriptural errors some how those stories can still stick like dynamite in the crevice of the human heart! Thanks Larry for your humorous humility!

    1. Marc . . . I’m not surprised the UK had a “Kim Davis.” There will always be one (or more), regardless of the region or era.

      It’s so easy to claim or blame Christianity. Lots more difficult to lovingly live it with humility.

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