As children we often say and do things we are later embarrassed by. At home, for example, I still have a large green book filled with pictures I drew, stickers that were once important to me, games I made up, etc. In the front cover of the book stands a statement I wrote that still causes me to laugh to this day.
In 1968 I wrote: “Charles Erlandson grew up to be a great football player.”
Needless to say, it’s not as a prophet (or NFL player) that I’ve made my living the past 40+ years.
Other things I imagined myself to be in times past include a jet pilot, mad scientist, world record holder in the mile, great American novelist, and President of the United States. It wasn’t until just last year I decided not to run for the office of Pope.
In its own way, each of these childish dreams was part of my secret quest for greatness. We all, like children, wildly imagine what form our earthly greatness is going to take. Like children, we often have the wrong goal or the wrong definition of greatness.
But what may be cute in a child is often tragic in an adult. And so it is that in this morning’s lesson taken from Mark 10, Jesus sets out to rid us of our false dreams of greatness. He fills us instead with a vision of true greatness – a greatness that we share with our great Lord Himself.
The Gospel of Mark is all about Jesus Christ, the Servant of God. Throughout Mark 8:27-10:52, Jesus begins to teach disciples that He will be rejected and put to death. Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, and the next thing Jesus teaches is that He must suffer and die. Although the disciples are not prepared to accept this teaching, Jesus is teaching them that the life of a disciple of Christ is a life of humility and servanthood.
For even the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve.
In Mark 10:33-34, for the fourth time in about two chapters, Jesus tells His disciples that He is about to be delivered to the Jewish leaders to be put to death. Now I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the apostles, I’d like to think that I would have gotten the message by now. I’d like to think that my mind would be on Jesus and how this man who healed the sick and was transfigured in glory was the Messiah. And I’d especially like to think that I would be thinking about how great He was, and how small and weak I was.
But the very next thing we find the disciples doing is quite the opposite of what Jesus has spent so much time teaching by word and by deed. It’s James & John, the Sons of Thunder, who approach Jesus with a special request. Notice, from the beginning of this passage, how utterly audacious the request of James and John is. First, they don’t approach Jesus with fear or meekness. Instead, notice the audacity of their question: “Teacher – we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
No buttering up or flattery, only an in your face: “You, God, do what we ask!”
Jesus could have rebuked them, as He did Peter when Peter resisted Christ’s approach to the Cross. But instead, He plays along, perhaps to see what is really in their hearts. Notice their arrogant, specific, request: “Make it so that we two brothers sit on your right and left hand in your glory.” In other words, “Make us #1 and #2 in your kingdom: give us glory above all those other bozos out there.”
I imagine that at this point James secretly believes that he will be #1 and John #2, while John secretly knows that exactly the reverse is true.
I’m more interested in the response of the other ten apostles, for this is what evokes Jesus’ true teaching on the matter of greatness in His Kingdom. When the 10 get wind of this, they are greatly displeased with James and John. I imagine that Peter is at the forefront of this grumbling, as he is with most things in the Gospels. After all, it was Peter, James, and John who all three were invited to see Jesus transfigured on the mountain. And wasn’t it Peter and Andrew who were called first?
“It was I, Peter, who first recognized you as the Messiah, and I’m the one upon whom you said you would build Your Church.” We can only imagine what petty squabbles broke out among the men who were appointed to be the foundation of the Church.
Jesus takes this opportunity, as always, to instruct them about both Himself and His Kingdom. They may expect Him to provide them with some divine pecking order: Peter first, John second, James third . . . . If so, Jesus greatly disappoints them. As always, He takes the worldly thinking that we are all born with and that is all around us and turns it absolutely on its head.
While the Gentiles think greatness is all about who has what position and power, the Kingdom of God is run the opposite way of the world. Jesus clearly tells them: there is one way to be great in My Kingdom – and that is to be the servant of all. He repeats this in verse 44, only this time He says it even more strongly: “Whoever desires to be the first shall be the slave, not merely the servant, of all.”
In one single stroke, Jesus cuts through all their ambition.
In one fell swoop, He cuts off the head of pride which has reared itself. Those who were most ambitious have now been most humiliated in front of the others; those who exalted themselves are now humbled. For even the Son of Man – this Jesus, this raiser of the dead and caster out of demons – didn’t come to be served but to serve.
Jesus backs up His words with His life, and, with the disciples, we all begin to feel about three inches tall.
But we face many obstacles to true greatness, as defined by Jesus. The worldly definition of greatness that the disciples and we are working from says that the greatest man is the one with the greatest kingdom, power, and glory. The world measures greatness by what you have or what you have done. Who is great, according to the world? The rich: the Bill Gates, the Howard Hughes, the Donald Trumps of the world. The powerful: the Bush family, the Clintons, the community leaders and rulers. The famous, the glorified, the celebrities, the stars.
A second obstacle is the flesh’s definition of greatness, which is that greatness is all about me. To be great, I must take care of #1, I must be original, I must be, well, me, for that is the greatest thing in the world to be! I think there’s even a praise chorus out now that basically says Jesus chose me because I’m so wonderful!
The path to greatness for the flesh is making my own way in the world and having my will be done by others. I need to have things done my way; I need to get ahead of other people; I need to win the Nobel Prize or lesser prizes, but I need to win.
If we’re honest, how many of the little decisions we make every day are done to make ourselves look good, sometimes even if it means making someone look worse so that you can look better? How many times do you distort what really happened in order to take credit for something you didn’t really do? And how many times do you deny credit for your mistakes?
Even in holy things, our own selfishness often isn’t very far away: it’s easy to slip into to thinking that I’m great because I go to church and do things for God.
The third obstacle to true greatness is the comparisons we make. Many of us have a temptation to compare ourselves to others and to satisfy our lust for greatness. Look at those poor sinners over there – how lost they are. I may not be the greatest, but at least I’m better than that person over there. Or we compare using the mirror image of pride: covetousness. Instead of saying how great I am, I say how great he or she is, and then: “Why didn’t God make me like them?”
“I wish I looked like that celebrity; I wish I had the house that Bill Gates has; I wish I had the car my neighbor just bought; or, perhaps most insidious of all – I wish I had the spiritual gifts my brother in Christ has” (don’t ask me how I know about that one!)
How, then, shall we be delivered from such pettiness and selfishness? One word and two steps. True Greatness in man is found in one word: “Humility.” “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord tells us (2 Corinthians 12:9). “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
The constant refrain throughout all of Scripture . . . the panacea for all of our spiritual ills . . . is to humble ourselves before Almighty God so that He might lift us up.
But how do we do this?
First, focus on Christ and not on yourself. It’s your selfishness that gets you into trouble in the first place, and yet that’s the first place we go for answers: ourselves. You must lose yourself . . . to gain yourself. But since nature abhors a vacuum, no one can simply lose himself – unless He fill his life with something greater. That something greater, that single source of Greatness, is Jesus Christ.
Humility is like using the rearview mirror in your car: if you want to see clearly, you’ve got to get your big fat head out of the way.
Your first mission every morning, should you choose to accept it (and you must) is to offer up yourself as a living sacrifice to God, that He might become your life.
The second step is to imitate Jesus in all things. Begin today a program of structuring your life so that you don’t spend most of the day merely on your own things but in looking out for the needs of others. Practice in small ways every day to deny yourself one thing so that you might instead serve others. Give up eating out one meal a week or a few hours of TV or other entertainment so that you can minister to someone in need or to work for the Church.
If you want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven, then learn to be humble like your Master.
Prayer: O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. Amen. (Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, The Litany of Humility)
Points for Meditation
- In what ways do I still seek to put myself first, above God and others? What is it that I seek in being first in these relationships and circumstances? How will God fill these if I turn to Him instead?
- Read Philippians 2:3-11 and meditate on the mind of Christ.
Resolution: I resolve to find one specific area today where I will practice denying myself for the good of someone else. If it is Lent, you may want to renew you Lenten discipline but also give it a specific focus, seeking not only to take off the Old Man but also to put on the New.
Mother of James and John and Jesus – U. S. Public Domain