This post is the second of four installments in my “Servant of All” series offering a preview of my newly-published book, Servant of All: Reframing Greatness and Leadership Through the Teachings of Jesus [2019, Kirkdale Press]. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for bulk order pricing.
In my previous post I asserted that there are two main things we need to observe about the larger picture surrounding Jesus’ assertion that anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all (Mark 9:35).
First, the statement was provoked by a series of events and an escalating debate. Jesus’ statement is preceded by a question: What were you arguing about on the road? (Mark 9:33)
Second, it launched a lengthy lecture that extends far beyond the few words recorded in the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. On the subject of greatness, Jesus gave an entire sermon, not merely the single sentence to which we have typically reduced the matter.
In his extended discourse on the subject that encompasses the entirety of Matthew 18 (as well as parts of Mark 9 and Luke 9), Jesus spells out six major propositions. We’ll take a look at the first three in this post and the latter three in my next post.
Proposition #1: Become like children. Welcome children.
Greatness is not advanced by our tendency to subdue and manipulate. Instead, when you regard yourself as unentitled and dependent as a child, you exhibit the character of greatness. When you recognize you are duty bound to serve and protect those over whom you have been given charge, you exhibit the character of greatness (see Matt 18:2-7).
In the first place, we should become like children. “Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:4). The way to greatness, says Jesus, is the way of humility, not exaltation. It is very dangerous—both for leaders and the people they lead—when leaders think greatness looks like invincibility and acts like superiority. When we can’t stoop to ask for help, neither can we stoop to serve. Dependency, not power, is the currency of Christendom.
In the second place, we are called to welcome children. A great deal of what we associate with greatness in this world amounts in the end to exclusion and exploitation. We regard people and relate to people not in terms of what we can do for them as emissaries of our Lord but rather in terms of what they are obligated to do for us. Jesus turns such reasoning entirely upside down: “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matt 18:5).
To welcome children means that we don’t see “little people” as serving us, we serve them. Jesus says that in serving them, we serve him. Metaphorically speaking, greatness involves a commitment to embrace and serve above all the people who are most like children—those who are incapable of elevating our status, resourcing our agenda, or contributing to our achievements.
Proposition #2: Greatness does not disgrace the kingdom.
Greatness does not disgrace the kingdom, seeking to elevate itself by denigrating others. Instead, you display greatness when you embrace and affirm others who serve the King, no matter how imperfectly, and when you defer to his ultimate judgment of their relative legitimacy and merit (see Mark 9:38-41).
Many people in positions of leadership presume that they have the prerogative to render judgment and impose sanctions.
Jesus instructs his disciples that seeking to make definitive judgments and pronounce condemnation on the activities of other servants of Christ can be a poisonous pastime for leaders. It is often born of envy. It inevitably breeds envy. Greatness and envy cannot coexist.
Heaven will validate what is true and what is false. You have not been authorized to arbitrate. You should reserve judgment and, in the meantime, welcome as allies anyone and everyone who “gives you a cup of water in my name” (see Mark 9:41). I take that to mean anyone and everyone who seeks with sincerity to propagate Jesus’ words of gospel grace and to participate in Jesus’ works of justice and mercy.
Proposition #3: Greatness is not pursued by force.
Greatness is not pursued by force through which to exploit others or indulge its idolatrous desires. Instead, you demonstrate you are truly great to the degree you treat power as a sacred yet sometimes seductive trust (see Matt 18:8-11).
Few things are uglier or more sinister than abuse of power. And few things are more common among leaders. It has often been said, “Rank has its privileges.” But here Jesus, as he so often does, turns conventional wisdom on its head when he offers a stern warning that “rank has its perils.” And woe to the person who abuses the powers associated with elevated rank!
Injustice in the form of exploitation of others represents the first way in which the powers associated with elevated rank or status can be abused. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble.” Jesus is saying that persons don’t become great because they have been entrusted with power. No, persons become great because they refuse to exercise the power with which they have been entrusted in such a way as to disregard or disadvantage people over whom they have been given charge.
Not only does abuse of power manifest itself in various forms of unjust exploitation, it also finds expression in various forms of self-indulgence. And self-indulgence is ultimately self-destructive. Jesus warns: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” Jesus employs hyperbole to make an important point. What if something as essential as your very own hand or foot or eye were to be the cause of your self-destruction? Even if that were so, it would be better to ruthlessly amputate or annihilate the offending member than to abuse the privileges of your position in self-indulgent and self-destructive ways.
A heart that seeks to abuse power and privilege on behalf of sinful self-gratification is the stealthiest of perils—a deadly peril to be avoided at all cost. Be radical in your commitment, says Jesus. A degree of remorselessness against stumbling or becoming a stumbling block for someone else should characterize your resolve. Great people embrace a higher standard of integrity, not because they have to but because they want to do all they can to cut off the risk of allowing their influence to be subverted.
More to come
Well, there you have the first three of six propositions Jesus offers in expounding upon his assertion regarding greatness. In my next post, we’ll consider propositions number four, five, and six. Stay with me.