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A New Greatness

A reflection on Mark 10:35-45

By John Buchanan
September 2009

“...whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
– Mark 10:43-45

They’re on the road to Jerusalem. Three times Jesus tried to warn them that there will be suffering and persecution and quite possibly death when they arrive in Jerusalem. His friends are amazed and afraid, as well they should be. And it’s precisely at this moment that James and John, two of his dearest and closest friends, come to him. Rather than standing with him in his hour of trial, trying somehow to support him as he walks toward his own hour of truth which he knows will be his hour of death, James and John use the moment to ask for a favor.

His friends think his arrival in Jerusalem will result in something good—like his becoming the king, the leader, number one in Israel. And when it happens—whatever it is—they, James and John, would very much like to be at his right hand and left hand in positions of power and visible greatness.

It had to have been one of the most devastating experiences in his life. Where have they been? Did they completely miss the point when he put the little child in their midst, or told the rich man to sell his

possessions? Were they deaf and blind?

It’s so embarrassing that Matthew’s Gospel softens it a bit for us by having the mother of James and John ask the question. But Mark writes first, so it must have been James and John themselves who ask it. Jesus does not scold them. In fact, there is a sense in which he accepts and even affirms what lies behind their question—their ambition, their desire for greatness.

James and John simply have the definitions wrong. It’s all right to want to be great. But greatness is not what you think. It’s not about sitting at the right and left hand of the king. It’s not about having lots of money or even lots of professional success. In God’s kingdom, which Jesus believes is now the operational reality in the world, greatness is measured by service. “Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all.”

Jesus says that God, the ultimate self-giver, is far more concerned about compassion and service than about ritual purity and religious power and prestige. And then he went about living it—healing, accepting the unacceptable, welcoming children, touching the untouchable, feeding the hungry. He will keep on living it until, on a Friday afternoon, he will pour himself out, dying as a ransom for many.

As followers of Jesus today, we have a valuable resource in Bread for the World. This remarkable organization enables you and me to join tens of thousands around the country in thousands of churches as we challenge the conscience of all people of good will.  Urging Congress and the president to change policies, invest resources at home and abroad, to end the shame of global hunger.

“Whoever wishes to become great must be your servant,” he said. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

In the words of Paul, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."

Rev. John Buchanan is pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and editor of Christian Century. This excerpt is from the Scripture and sermon study for this year’s Bread for the World Sunday. Order worship resources with the entire reflection at www.bread.org.

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