Text: Mark 9:30-37
Jesus once said,
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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 even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
He taught this to the Disciples on the eve of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem after James and John asked to sit at His right and left hands in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ point was that, as He – who, above all, deserves to be served – came to serve, so also we should seek to be of service to others.
Jesus teaches this at many points in the Gospel, and, also, the Apostles in the Epistles. The life of a Christian is meant to be spent in service toward others, and not building up glory for ourselves. Our Lord and His Apostles repeat this over and over again because, so often our lives are given to the pursuit of glory, riches, happiness; to have more than those around us, and to be worth more. We are taught by our society that those who have more are better than those who have less, and we live our lives in that pursuit. Jesus, however, became greatest by becoming the least, and He teaches us to do the same.
The question, who is the greatest, is not a new question. The quest for greatness seems to have driven human affairs since time immemorial. Even in Eden, it was what drove our first parents to eat from the forbidden fruit, wasn’t it? The desire to be like God, to be wise like Him, to be great like Him? Greater even? The pursuit of greatness and glory has sparked conquests and wars throughout recorded history, sometimes ending in – temporary – glory, sometimes in defeat. Still, the pursuit isn’t always bad. The pursuit to be the greatest has brought many innovations in literature, technology and healthcare that make life today more comfortable than it has ever been. But, the pursuit of greatness and glory comes at a cost. Often, that cost is other people.
Ingrained in our lives is the constant pursuit of greatness, though we call it by another name – success. We strive after it all our lives: in sports, in our jobs, and in relation to other people. We teach our children to dedicate their entire lives to athletic pursuits, while we sacrifice their and our souls by neglecting God’s Word and Sacrament. We are always in search of higher wages, never content with what blessings God has already given us nor trusting in His future provision. We seek to be esteemed by our peers and be spoken about in glowing terms. We are always seeking greatness and glory, but often the cost is other people. Because, we have all been taught that to have more is better and to have less is bad. If I’m better at my sport, I am better than that person. If I make more money than that person, my position is more valuable. If I have more toys, my life is more enjoyable than that person’s.
Jesus’ teaching today comes after His second passion prediction. St. Mark wrote, “Jesus was teaching His disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’” Jesus taught the Disciples that the plan of God from the foundation of time was to reconcile the sinful world to Himself by the sacrifice of His Son. God knew that the depth of man’s depravity and sinfulness, his inherent search for self-glorification, was so great that only by one giving up glory could things be fixed. Salvation couldn’t be accomplished by a man, because – by nature – no man is able to be entirely self-less. It couldn’t be God the Father Himself – for He cannot sin. Rather, by the self-emptying and sacrifice of the Son of God, who is also the Son of Man, mankind is forgiven.
By the definite plan of God, Jesus was handed over into the hands of sinful men. And, He went willingly. He set aside His crown and glory, He resisted and endured all the same temptations that we do – yet, without sin. Then, like lamb is led to slaughter, He was nailed to the cross. He who, above all, deserves worship and glory, was mocked and spit upon while He hanged there dying. But, by His death, He atoned for our sin. Jesus said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” These words apply, first, to Him.
Jesus became the greatest by becoming the least. He became servant of all by becoming true man and suffering death for us on the cross. He suffered and died to win for us forgiveness for our sins of selfishness and greed, which are both idolatry and sins against the First Commandment. He died to win forgiveness for the times when we have pursued worldly things other than the things of God, which are the Second and Third Commandments. He died to win forgiveness for the times where we have placed our needs, our wants, and our selves above others – which is all the rest of the Commandments. Jesus teaches us today that true greatness is not measured in glory, wealth, or possessions, but in service toward others.
St. Paul wrote, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” In our text, we heard how the Disciples were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, best, and most valuable among them. Though they were wrong, we dare not fault them – since we do the very same thing, we and all mankind. Therefore, Jesus became the least and servant of all by dying for all on the cross. He has won for us the forgiveness of our sins.
He not only has He given us that forgiveness through His Word, in Baptism, in the Absolution, and in the Lord’s Supper, but He also has given us His Holy Spirit by these things. And, the Spirit gives us a new heart and mind. By this new heart and mind, we are led to think of ourselves and others not as we once did, but in Christ. That is to say, we are led to think of ourselves less and of others, more. With the mind and heart of Christ, we are taught that our lives should not be led in pursuit of glory, wealth, and riches but how best to use the gifts God gives us in service to our neighbor. True greatness comes not from lives of plenty, but lives lived in love toward others.
Thanks be to God, than, that though we have failed to think of others as greater than ourselves and have thought of ourselves greater than others, though we have lived our lives in pursuit of our own greatness, Jesus lived His life in service toward others. He lived His life and died, so that we might be forgiven. He gives us His Holy Spirit by His Word and Sacrament so that we, too, might live by serving others. Greatness comes not from glory, but service. God grant this unto us all, amen.