Just the other day I was arguing with my friends about who is the greatest among us. Show of hands… who does that?! Below is my summary and restatement of Luke 9:46-50. To see the actual text, go here.
The disciples began arguing about which of them would be greatest in the kingdom. Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he asked a little child to come stand with him. Then he told the disciples, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me; and if you welcome me you’re also welcoming the Father who sent me. For he among you who lowers himself to do so — he is the greatest.”
“Lord,” said John, “we saw a guy doing exorcisms in your name, but since he’s not one of us, we tried to get him to stop.”
“Don’t stop him,” Jesus said, “because any man not against us is for us.”
In the previous story, the disciples were unable to themselves cast a demon out of a small boy. Jesus drove out the demon, and then attempted to explain (in not so plain words) that he would be betrayed and killed. The disciples didn’t understand. Shocking.
What I’ve Learned
We have a tendency to want to be great. It’s human nature. And I’d argue this desire to be great is a small part of God that exists in us. You’re going to hear that and argue for humility over arrogance. You might understand my words as meaning God is a power-hungry fool seeking his own greatness — and that he placed that desire in us as well. But hear me out.
I believe the desire to be great is from God. But I also believe we’ve twisted, misunderstood, and abused that desire. God is great — plain and simple. And he desires to be great. He glories in being perfect. He recognizes what is truly good, and loves it deeply. And so, he worships himself with passion. But this is not arrogance. Rather God is properly placing value, and worshiping that which is good and true and right. We’re called to do the same. The problem isn’t that we shouldn’t seek to recognize greatness and ourselves be great; we’re called to be like our heavenly Father, who is perfect. The problem is that we misunderstand greatness.
Jesus knows his disciples are arguing about who will be greatest among them. But he doesn’t correct them, telling them to have lower aspirations. No, he still wants and expects them to attain greatness. He simply paints for them a more accurate picture of it. The problem is not that the disciples are seeking greatness, but that they’re poorly defining it.
I think (this is only my best understanding of the text) a lot of people misunderstand this passage. One, they think the story is about humility; I respectfully disagree. [Humility is required for us to be obedient to Jesus' words here, but it doesn't seem to itself be the point.] Two, they take Jesus knowing his disciples’ thoughts to mean he knew they were arguing about greatness. But they were arguing… and (almost definitely) audibly. I would suggest Jesus knew more than what these guys were saying aloud. He recognized the criteria they were using to establish greatness in their own minds (their thoughts). And those criteria are not explained for us. But my guess, based on context, is that the disciples believe greatness is demonstrated by casting out demons (which they were recently unable to do) and certainly not by being delivered to your enemies and killed (which they’ve just failed to understand).
The disciples think greatness exists in accomplishing great tasks. And Jesus shows them greatness exists in accepting children, in welcoming the unimportant, in loving the unloved, in giving rights to those without them.* He paints for the disciples a completely different picture of greatness. When you accept the least, you, being the least, will be accepted. We don’t find acceptance in doing great things. We find acceptance in accepting others. But Jesus doesn’t stop here with his definition. John’s about to help him make his next point.
John recounts how he and the others ordered some guy to stop casting out demons — because he wasn’t one of them.** The assumption is that greatness is not only confirmed by accomplishing great tasks, but also by being part of a select group. Listen to me, fellow Church of Christers: the disciples believe greatness is grasped through being part of a select and exclusive group. They are an elitist bunch of guys, who don’t want others casting out demons when they’ve been unable to do so. Exclusion is seen (subconsciously or not) as a legitimate means of achieving greatness:
- If you’re not with us, you’re against us.
- If you don’t ascribe to our views of church leadership and structure, you must play for another team altogether.
- If you’re casting out demons, or even believe that can happen, you probably are one.
- If you didn’t worship with us last Sunday morning (and Sunday and Wednesday evenings), then what you do isn’t worship.
- If you come up with a different interpretation than the one my favorite preacher tells me is right, yours is wrong… and you’re not a Christian.
- If you don’t make a certain amount of cash, drive the right car, and wear the right clothes, find a different small group.
- If you’re a different color, maybe this church isn’t for you.
- If you have “big” sins in your past, instead of the normal selfishness and greed, you’re just not as forgiven as I am — and maybe not at all.
But Jesus clears all this right up. He explains that he who is not against you is for you. He who is not against us is for us. Greatness isn’t about exclusion; it’s about inclusion. You’d think the disciples might have deciphered this from Jesus’ secret code words about ACCEPTING children. Acceptance of others, especially those “lower” than, and different from, ourselves is key to greatness in the kingdom.***
Summary (for those with short attention spans)
- We naturally desire greatness. Jesus doesn’t argue against that; rather, he demonstrates true greatness. And he wants us to be great.
- We believe greatness is determined by 1) our ability to achieve and 2) our inclusion in a special and set apart group.
- Jesus argues greatness is demonstrated by accepting others, especially those who are 1) “lower” than us and 2) different than us. This requires humility, but that’s not the point in itself.
How have we poorly defined greatness? What are we seeking to accomplish in order to be accepted? To whom are we not welcoming? In what ways are we being elitest and snobby Christians?
* I’ve heard a lot of teachers suggest Jesus is saying the disciples should be like little children in order to be great. While this is a general truth — and Jesus says so in a parallel story in Matthew 18 — I don’t believe it is his intention in this text. If it were, he would be communicating it in one of the worst ways possible. I just think Jesus is smarter than that. And I’m not sure he needs us trying to make each of his stories look like every other. Just my opinion.
** It’s interesting that in the text John says, “…we tried to stop him.” I don’t want to read too much into it, but it sounds as if the disciples were unsuccessful in getting this guy to stop casting out demons in Jesus’ name. That would be a testament of God’s power, and our inability to thwart his purposes, even / especially in and for other groups.
*** The disciples obviously don’t get this at all, because only a few verses later, they ask if they can “call fire down from heaven to destroy” a bunch of Samaritans. Wow.