Listening to Jesus About Greatness

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 10:43-45

“But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:43-45 rsv

I suppose there is no ambition among us more common or more compelling than the desire to be great. What did Jesus have to say about that? Listen. I’m reading from Mark, chapter 10, beginning at verse 43:

But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Who are they really – the great people of our time? Are they the political figures whose names are often in the headlines – the Bushes and Gorbachevs, the Thatchers and Husseins? Or are they perhaps the super athletes, the Joe Montanas, the Michael Jordans, the Jos? Cansecos? Or could they be the men who appeared on the cover of a news magazine some time ago, all of whom had made a million dollars before age 40. Are they the great ones?

Or to bring it closer to home, who are the greatest people in your community, in your neighborhood? Those who own the most property, those who are highly influential, or extraordinarily gifted? Are they the shakers and movers, those who have really made it in this world? Is greatness, in other words, just another name for what we call success?


All of us have an interest in that question because we’ve all felt something of the longing to be special, the ambition to be great. Every athlete, or competitor, I suppose, at every level, aspires to be number one. Every craftsman, teacher, professional, would like to be the best in his or her specialty. We long to be distinguished, don’t we, to stand out from the crowd?

Some are strongly aggressive in going after these things. Their ambitions are right out in the open. Take James and John, the disciples of Jesus, for example. These two men weren’t called the Sons of Thunder for nothing. They had set their sights on the places of honor in the kingdom Jesus was about to establish. They prevailed on their mother first to intercede for them with Jesus and were standing right beside her when the request was made. When Jesus came to His throne, they wanted to be His chief deputies, one at His right hand and one at His left.

You know people like that, don’t you? They push for prominence. They know what they want and they are not in the least reticent about seeking it. They are aiming for the top and they don’t care who knows about it.

Not everyone is that forward, though. Many of us operate with a different style. As far as we know, the other ten disciples hadn’t asked for these favored positions in the coming kingdom. In fact, when they heard what James and John were up to, they were incensed. “What’s going on here?” we can imagine them saying. “Who do these men think they are anyway? Why should they get special treatment?”

But what’s behind all that indignation? Why the resentment? Think about the feelings we sometimes have. Why are we so annoyed when we sense conceit and self-advertisement in someone else? Is it partly because of our longings, our frustrated aspirations? Why do we resent the boy, the girl, the man or woman who is always the “life of the party,” as we say? Maybe it’s because down deep we would like to be but we don’t know how or hesitate to try. Some of you may remember John Montefusco, who used to pitch for the San Francisco Giants. They called him the Count. He was a colorful ball player who, somewhat in the fashion of Mohammed Ali, used to talk about his exploits in advance. He would predict upcoming victories. He would announce on occasion that he would pitch a shutout and whom he would strike out, in what inning. He was for some years an effective pitcher and sometimes his prophecies came true.

When asked by a sports writer about this seeming arrogance of his, he replied that every pitcher thinks those things, indulges those fantasies. The difference was that he, the Count, came right out and talked about them. Maybe there’s some truth to that. Maybe that’s the difference between, say, James and John and the rest of the disciples. We have different styles, but belligerently or bashfully, openly or secretly, we all cherish our dreams of greatness.

I’m impressed at the way Jesus dealt with these men. He responded first, “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink my cup and be baptized with my baptism?” Their answer came back forthrightly, “Yes,” as though to say, “We can handle that.” Jesus acknowledged that they were right but told them that what they were asking was not His to give. All of that was in the Father’s hands. But it’s noteworthy to me that Jesus didn’t chide them for asking. He didn’t say sternly, “There’s no room for such ambition and vain glory among My followers.” He didn’t put them down or treat them with the slightest note of scorn. He saw something worthwhile in their request. There was faith there – they believed He would have a kingdom. And there was a kind of love – they wanted to be as near to Him as they possibly could. So He let them know that the path to greatness might take them through sorrow, rejection and suffering, but He didn’t blame them for wanting to walk that way.

Jesus would never discourage your ambition to be great, either. That desire in you to be a unique person, to make a significant mark in life, to be all you can be – there’s something right, even good about that. There’s nothing godly about passionless contentment with the mediocre. As the song from the musical “South Pacific” puts it: “You gotta have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have your dream come true?” And the God who puts eternity in our hearts, who kindles those dreams in us, never ridicules aspirations for greatness. Remember that. You don’t need to be ashamed of those fires of ambition that burn deep within you.


What the Lord does do here for His disciples and for the rest of us is straighten out our thinking about what it means to be great. There’s a common way of looking at this that misses the mark entirely. Here it is. Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them.” On this view, the great are those who throw their weight around and get others to jump when they snap their fingers. They are the people who seem to have the world on a string and everyone else at their service. They’re the ones who are waited on, catered to, fawned over. They seem to say by manner and bearing, if not in so many words, “I’ve made it. Now let everyone else make room for me.”

But Jesus said, “It shall not be so among you.” In other words: That may be man’s version of greatness but it is certainly not God’s. It may be the world’s pattern of things, but heaven has a different one. And that is so different as to be surprising, almost revolutionary. Listen: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.

“You want to be great?” Jesus asks. Then concentrate on doing for other people. The word means, literally, to be a waiter at their table. Attend to them, in other words. Fulfill their wishes. Meet their needs. Put yourself at their disposal. That’s a strange kind of greatness, isn’t it? Who do you know that’s ambitious for that? Again, the Lord asks, “Do you want to be first, foremost, number one?” Who doesn’t? Then He urges, “Prepare to give yourself as one who is no longer his own as a slave.” The earth’s truest royalty wears the garb of a bondservant, a slave who lays aside his own rights to belong to someone else. What kind of distinction, what kind of prominence is that?

In the light of Jesus’ words, look again at that question, “Who is truly great?” I think of a man in our congregation who passed away very suddenly just a few days ago. He and his wife were always arranging to visit some mission field – just to help in practical, commonplace ways. For thirty years or more he worked with young boys in teaching them how to play baseball. I think he was one of the great. I think of the mother I met some time ago who during the course of her life has had twenty-some foster children living in her home, giving to each a treasure of love and affirmation. I think of a doctor in our community who used to devote all kinds of time giving free medical care to migrant workers. You’ve probably never heard of those people, but they’re on my list of the great ones. Yes, and maybe the great are people like that in your town, in your neighborhood, among your friends, people whom no one notices much, but who have learned in all kinds of hidden ways what it is to serve.

Wouldn’t it be something if the whole picture were somehow switched around? What if the “great man on campus” turned out to be not one of the star athletes but rather the assistant manager of the team who passed out towels and picked up orange peels? What if the greatest of women was seen not to be a headline winner but a quiet young lady in a hospital who smiles at patients and empties bed pans? Wouldn’t that be something?

“Yeah, that all sounds nice,” says someone cynically. “But what evidence do we have that that’s the way it is? When you come right down to it, no one operates like that. Everyone I know is scrambling for that other kind of greatness. What proof is there that this service business is a better way?”


Just this: Jesus said, “Even the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” That’s the clue for me. That’s the key. Someone lived among us once who called Himself the Son of man. He never seemed, as we say, to throw His weight around. He was meek and lowly in heart. He sided with the poor, the disadvantaged, even the outcast. He spent Himself in loving ministry to the sick, the lonely, and the broken. When people wanted to make Him a king, He withdrew from them. When His own friends became thoughtless and petty, He got up from a table one night and went around washing their feet. And when nothing else would help, He willingly gave Himself up to die so that the broken people He loved could have true life.

The word is that now He is alive again. The grave couldn’t hold Him. He rose from the dead by the power of God. They call Him now King of kings and Lord of lords. They say that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Him. His name is Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace. They say that every knee will bow before Him at the last day and every tongue confess that He is Lord.

And you know, ever since He lived, died, and rose again, the world’s idea of greatness has been exposed as a falsehood. We still fall for it at times, still get fooled, but in our better moments we know that it’s a lie. It’s not what you get but what you give. It’s not how you succeed but how you serve. It’s not a crowned head that makes you great but a caring heart. And the way to that for each one of us is in the footsteps and in the fellowship of Jesus Christ.

Maybe this is all new for you. You’ve heard something about Jesus before and what He said and did but it has never become real and personal for you. It has never dawned on you that He gave His life for your sins. You perhaps haven’t seen yourself as someone who needs a Savior, and you’ve never trusted in the risen Jesus to give you true life, new life. Oh, believe today that God has raised Jesus from the dead and made Him Lord of everything. Trust Him. Submit your life to Him as your king and Savior. It will be the greatest step you’ve ever taken.

Or it may be that you’ve already made that commitment but have never taken seriously the Lord’s Word about greatness. Your ambitions have been, to tell the truth, largely self-centered. But now you hear Him saying, “It shall not be so among you.” Will you confess to Him along with me that you’ve often been on the wrong track? You’ve wanted to be someone special, but how small and self-serving that has often turned out to be! Now you’ve gotten a fresh look at Jesus Christ, the One who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life for us. And you want to say to Him today, “Lord, my ambition is to follow You, to be Your servant.” God bless you as you say that! And may He fulfill all your best dreams and make of you a man or woman truly great – great in the Lord’s eyes! Amen.