The Greatest

The full readings for today can be found here.


Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You know, sometimes I read Mark’s Gospel and I just cringe at the disciples. That’s probably not the right kind of thing for a preacher to say about these men who the Church would later call “saints,” but these guys are the worst. I mean, here Jesus is, trying for the third time in this 9th Chapter of Mark, to tell them—that he will be betrayed, that he will suffer and be killed, that he will come back from the dead. And all they want to do is argue about which one of them is the greatest. These guys are numbskulls, they are narcissistic, self-absorbed mercenary chuckleheads who don’t understand anything about the Gospel or Jesus or the kingdom of God or anything. And what really infuriates me about them, the really exasperating part about them, is that they are so much like me.

And it makes me wonder, what is God trying to tell us as we bicker and argue on the way? What message are we missing as we struggle for success, power, or achievement?

Admittedly, the world teaches us to love these things from a very early age. We have to get the best grades, so we can go to the best colleges, so we can get the best jobs and make the most money. In sports, we are consumed with who’s the best of all time. And we want to know who won the best picture, to stay in the nicest hotels, to drive the best cars. And we want to name among our friends those who are powerful, influential, and important.

I’m reminded that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proudly announced to the world, “I am the greatest.” He said, “I am the greatest.” I think I’ll circle back to that idea in a bit.

Things weren’t so different back in Jesus’ time. Sociologists have described 1st Century Palestine as an honor/shame culture. In this sort of culture, you would find honor if a person of great wealth or great importance came to your home or became your associate. On the other hand, you would be shamed if a person of low social standing came to your home for dinner or befriended you.

Now, in that world, children were of no social standing or significance at all. They were completely dependent, and vulnerable in the world around them. And so, Jesus continues to try to teach the disciples when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And right after that, he takes a little child into his arms. You see, children didn’t have any social standing at all; they didn’t offer anything of value. Like Jesus, children were completely vulnerable. They had little to offer that the world considers precious. So, Jesus was telling his disciples, all those things that make you a success in the world (drive, ambition, power)—you’re going to have to let that go.

St. James picks up on this idea in the epistle this morning. He says, “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It’s a wonderful notion, and as I look back on my own life, it’s amazing how disorderly and chaotic my own appetite for recognition is. Once you start down that road, it’s hard to find an end. But the gospel tells us something else about that day. While Jesus was trying to explain that he was giving up his life for the life of the world, the disciples couldn’t understand. In fact, Mark says that “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

James suggests that our selfish ambitions will lead us to chaos. This gospel story today sort of reminds me of the Tower of Babel. Jesus is trying to talk with the disciples about the work of the Cross, and they’re having a completely separate discussion about their ambitions. And even their language has failed the disciples, because they don’t even trust Jesus enough to ask him what he means. Jesus was trying to tell them that there are hard times ahead, and they were afraid.

I’m reminded of something one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry, once wrote: “Two epidemic illnesses of our time—upon both of which virtual industries of cures have been founded—are the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons. That these two are related (that private loneliness, for instance, will necessarily accompany public confusion) is clear enough…. What seems not so well understood, because not so much examined, is the relation between these disintegrations and the disintegration of language. My impression is that we have seen a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” 

So, I want to circle back to an idea I talked about earlier. I told you that in February of 1964, Muhammad Ali proclaimed “I am the greatest.” He said this as he was preparing to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. At that time, he had won the Olympic gold medal in boxing and had never lost a professional fight. Ali would defeat Liston and become the heavyweight champion.

But life would knock Ali around a bit. In 1967, as a result of his protest against the Vietnam War and refusal to serve, he was stripped of his title. He could not fight for three years, three of the prime years of his career. He fought again for the heavyweight title in 1971 against Joe Frazier and he lost. He would fight Frazier again in 1974 and regain the title. He would lose the heavyweight championship again in February of 1978 to Leon Spinks. And that year, Ali said something very different from the braggadocio of his youth when he proclaimed himself the greatest. That year, Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Ali had been knocked around by the world, and he kept getting up, but he had come to a deeper understanding. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Something very similar would happen with the disciples. They would get knocked around a bit. They would lose their rabbi, their teacher, and their Messianic dreams. Jesus would be hung on a tree like a scarecrow, and they would run away and betray him. They would look deeply into themselves and feel shame at their cowardice. And yet, they kept coming back. They would spread the gospel to Syria and India, to North Africa and Asia Minor, to Persia and Ethiopia, and even to Rome, the heart of the Empire. And Church tradition teaches that these same men, these knuckleheads I spoke of earlier, would each die a martyr’s death. They would become great—great Saints of the Church—but not in any way that they had imagined. They would come to realize that “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

And I think most of us have learned the same lesson. This pandemic has knocked most of us around a bit. Most of us have been knocked around by life, sometimes knocked down. We’ve suffered losses, and we’ve had our hearts broken—maybe the loss of a loved one, a parent or a child, or we’ve seen our dreams dry up and blow away in the wind of disappointment. We wear those scars.

But you know, my father used to tell me, “Anybody who doesn’t have any scars, well, they never found anything worth fighting for.”  The question of who’s the greatest, or a life lived listening to the siren song of our own selfish ambitions, that’s not even a fight worth winning. But a life lived struggling against my own ego in service to others, a life lived so that our brothers and sisters might know a better life—as Jesus taught us, that’s a fight worth dying for.



Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2021

12 responses to “The Greatest

  1. This is one of my favorites. As my dad always said, “Boy, howdy.” Wait, that wasn’t *my*dad…

    I can’t help thinking of your dad, hearing you quote him while interpreting scripture, shaking his head with a small grin barely escaping, and thinking… something he always thought.

    NLM

  2. Thanks for the reflection.   Mike
    Sent from AT&T Yahoo Mail for iPhone

  3. Very good. Thanks!
    Sent from my iPhone
    >

  4. Congrats for a meaningful sermon!  Bo

  5. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. Really nice James, thanks for sharing! Un abrazo.

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