When Jesus asks the disciples what they discussed, Mark says they kept silent because “on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” (9:34). They won’t answer because of shame. They’ve got hands in the cookie jar but reckon that if they slide the jar behind someone’s back, well, maybe Jesus won’t know.
But he knows. He sees the crumbs on the floor and the chocolate on their cheeks. Their petty and myopic argument about worldly greatness is sin, just like when we pastors size each other up at conferences and seminary students view classmates as competitors.
THE INVITATION TO TRUE GREATNESS
Zack Eswine notes in his book The Imperfect Pastor that pastoral ambition has a certain “arson” to it. That’s certainly true. But if we read Jesus’s words carefully, we’ll see Jesus doesn’t want to put the fire out. He wants to douse our desire for greatness with gasoline.
You might expect Jesus to issue a harsh rebuke. I mean, he is a prophet, and prophets do that sort of thing from time to time. Instead what they got—and what we get—is patience. He teaches; he instructs; he redefines; and he redirects. We would fire these disciples and hire others. But Jesus loves them. He tells them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Notice the exact phrasing: “servant of all,” not just servant of the greats, like servant of a famous pastor or a seminary president. His point is that the greatness of our service is enhanced not diminished by the lack of greatness of those we serve.
For us visual learners, Jesus goes on to illustrate his point. He called a child to himself, took the child in his arms, and said to the disciples, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (9:37). Jesus implies that greatness is receiving children because they are a specific example of the broader principle of servanthood. In receiving children, Jesus shows us that true greatness—by his definition—is serving, loving, and caring for the needs of people who cannot repay you.
PASTORAL AMBITION & THE REDEMPTION OF GREATNESS
Of course, the disciples don’t get it—not before the cross and resurrection, anyway. As Luke records, even during the last supper with Jesus, this same argument flared among them. “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. . . . A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:17, 24).
Christ’s lesson on true greatness didn’t stick. Ultimately we need more than a lesson or an invitation. We need redemption. Our definition of greatness is too corrupt. We all have in us what comedian Brian Regan calls the “me-monster.” I give away 20% of my income. I memorized the book of Ephesians. I have 2,000 Facebook friends. My church had a dozen baptisms last month. I bench press 350 lbs. and run marathons. I . . . I . . . I . . .
Jesus told his disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Indeed he was. And his service to sinners leads him to the cross where he dies for our sins, including those we commit pursuing pastoral ambition in the eyes of the world. And he redeems our corruption and shows us a better way. If you want to change the world, have the ultimate side-hustle, and be a modern prince of preachers, then by the grace of God be a servant of all.
This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.