The Greatest

You probably know those people who have an innate ability to turn a conversation back upon themselves, even if it has little or nothing to do with them. Say you are casually talking about a movie you saw, and by the end of the conversation the topic has somehow swung to the other person boycotting that particular actor or producer, or movies in general, and that you should consider doing the same. Or maybe you and a friend are having your own conversation, and this same person jumps in with his or her own story that sounds even more impressive than yours – the classic “1-uper”.

Not all of us are skilled and prepared to hijack a conversation like that, but in our hearts we all have the tendency to “1-up” the next person. Competition is in our DNA, and billions of revenue dollars from professional sports are proof of that. Whether it’s on a field or in a debate, or even just in a conversation, there’s a part of us that wants to know who is the best.

Such a competition had arisen amongst Jesus’ disciples, but not about who was the greatest at a particular skill, but who was the greatest period. Luke 9.46 reads, “An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.” The parallel passage of this moment in Mark 9.34 also describes it as an “argument”. Matthew’s account enhances this by stating that they wanted to know who was the greatest “in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18.1). Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, yet I can only imagine how much of his humanity showed as his jaw hung open at this argument. I like to believe that some early Greek manuscripts included an “are you kidding me?” by Jesus as his listened. Both Mark and Luke suggest that they were trying to keep it to themselves, so at least there was some morsel of restraint. Still, after all they had heard and seen from Jesus, what kind of special arrogance does it take to even make that suggestion, much less get into a 12-way argument about it?

Sadly this wasn’t the only time it happened. Luke records a similar argument in chapter 22, but the context is much more somber. Here we find ourselves at the last Passover meal, the Lord’s Supper, the night before Jesus would die. In the middle of the meal, Jesus announces that one amongst them would betray him. This set off a firestorm of questions between the disciples, and questioning shifted to arguing: “And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this. A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” (Luke 22.23-24) The shift from verse 23 to verse 24 seems nonsensical and borderline outrageous. How could they be so self-absorbed as to go from the betrayal of their Lord to having the “I’m the greatest” argument again?

I wonder if it played out something like this: “Is it I? Will I betray you Lord? Certainly I wouldn’t do that! What about him (pointing to another disciple), would he do it? Maybe it’s him. I could see him doing it. I mean he’s not the worst of us but he’s certainly not the best. You probably don’t like him all that much anyway. Me on the other hand, I know I wouldn’t do it, so I have to be pretty high your list. I dare say I may be the best.” In a moment of grave reverence and eternal significance, the disciples somehow manage to hijack the conversation and play the 1-up game with each other.

According to the timeline of John’s gospel, this outburst was preceded by Jesus’ beautifully undignified act of washing their feet, a demonstration of how they were to love and serve one another. Then only moments later the arguing would begin again. Yet Jesus understood them all, clearly and perfectly. Even as he washed their feet he told them, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13.7) And after the disciples argued about who would or would not betray him, Jesus revealed they would all run away. He knew the the depths of their hearts, yet lovingly served them anyway.

There can be no competition in the kingdom of God, because competition begins with self-promotion, and self-promotion only pulls you further from a kingdom mindset. Jesus’ example, both on that night and the deadly day to follow, overrides all of our arguments for why we, each on our own merit, should have any place in his kingdom. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9.35) Our submission is our promotion.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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