Mark 9:30-37


What were you arguing about on the road? But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.


Who’s the Greatest of Them All?


In the White Mountains of Arizona in a little town called Show Low, a great pugilist practiced.  It was during several summers in the 1960s.  He came to the White Mountains to train.  The White Mountains are particularly pleasant in the summertime.  There weren’t many people there so the pugilist could escape the madding crowds.  The pugilist’s name was  Mohammed Ali.  He was a great boxer…a pugilist.  He is the one who said about himself in no uncertain terms---it seemed he delighted to say it---, “I’m the greatest.”  And maybe in the realm of pugilists and boxers he was for a time the greatest.


His claim of being the greatest was really the claim of the disciples in the reading for today and it is shocking to hear them squabbling and to find this out.  Jesus overheard them as they walked along on the road.  Jesus asked, “What were you arguing about on the road?”  But they didn’t want to say anything.  Most people, besides perhaps some like Mohammed Ali, are reluctant to actually say it out loud, “I am the greatest.”  It was so for the disciples.  “But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”


After the statement “I’m the greatest” had surfaced, Jesus sat the disciples down and talked to them.  It says that.  He sat down himself.  You can’t make much progress in your walk of faith and love if you entertain the thought that you are the greatest.  No disciples could.  No disciple can.  So Jesus said the words which sound familiar to us even though we might forget that they come because we are inclined to think of ourselves as the greatest.  Jesus said,  “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  He then went on to guide a little child into their midst.  We can see him taking the little shy fellow by the hand and maneuver him into the midst of the disciples sitting there.  Jesus pointed at the little child and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”


The really shocking thing is that the nice people sitting around you this morning and that nice person who is yourself all do entertain the thought “I am the greatest.”  You have never heard your pastor say those words and he has never heard you say those words.  But perhaps we have said the words in other ways.  These “other ways” are just as forceful and in your face as saying, “I’m the greatest” and thumping ourselves on the chest all the while.


You have to be obviously self-centered and egotistical to say, “I’m the greatest.”  It is even hard to imagine someone being so bold.  See if you can’t hear the shocking words lurking in the following things we have been want to say.

- “Don’t bother me.”  (My time is the only time that counts.  I’m the greatest, you know.)

- “I can’t help you.”  (I need to help myself first.  You know…I’m the greatest.)

- “Why?”  “Why do I have to listen to you?”  “Why do you get to make out the program for the day?”  I’m the greatest!

- “It’s my way or the highway.”  (It’s obvious here: I’m the greatest!)

- “What?!”  (Did you hear it?)

- “Are you kidding?”  “What were you thinking?”  “What are you thinking?”  “I can’t believe you said that…why, it’s almost as if you didn’t know that I’m the greatest.

The Apostle Paul had a different way of saying he was the greatest.  He said, “I am the greatest sinner.”  He also said, “I am the least of the apostles.”  In this he thought rightly.  Apparently James and John didn’t listen during the sermon Jesus preached when he sat the disciples down that day.  They apparently didn’t take his query, “What were you arguing about on the road?” very seriously.  We know this.  In the very next chapter from the words before us today we hear them say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  And, ready or not, this is what it was they wanted Jesus to do for them: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”  The rest of the disciples got indignant at this.  It says that in the account too.  Maybe the disciples had gotten the message that we aren’t to be trying to be the greatest.  But maybe they were miffed because James and John had beaten them to the request.  Whatever happened, James and John had the idea of being the greatest.  They pictured themselves of all people and of all disciples sitting up there in those places of honor at Jesus’ right and left.  Jesus had to tell them (again), “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”  (Mark 10:35ff.)


So, who is the greatest?  It’s important for you and me to know.  The one who called the disciples on the question that day and sat them down and talked to them from his heart and with his eyes…he is the greatest.  He still is.  Jesus is the greatest.  When we look into the mirror this morning, who is the “fairest of them all?”  It is Jesus still.  He’s the fairest.  He’s the rose of Sharon.  He’s the greatest of them all.  


Jesus’ greatness was back-lit by his smallness and his humility.  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death---even death on a cross!  And it was then his Father who said, “Jesus is the greatest.  There is no other one greater.  Listen to him.  He is my Christ, my chosen one.  He is the greatest.”  And we further read, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  (Philippians 2:6ff.)


Jesus didn’t like Mohammed Ali go around shouting, “I’m the greatest.”  He was the greatest and still is, but he didn’t shout it.  And his humble attitude is to be ours.  That’s what his Father tells us in this same place, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”


Jesus tells us how to fix our attitude when it gets too big for its own good and flirts with the fact, “I’m the greatest.”  Think about him!  Remember the child standing there as you sit with the disciples listening to Jesus.  Remember your past arguments with your spiritual siblings over who is the greatest.  And then listen again to Jesus, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”  Love Jesus.  Think of Jesus.  Welcome Jesus.  Have Jesus close by.  Listen to Jesus.  And then, love Jesus’ people.  Love the children.  Love the little ones.  This takes care of the question, “Who is the greatest of all?” and our quick response, “I am.”  It quickly answers the question with the wonderful statement, “Jesus is the greatest and his little children are great.”


But don’t be heartbroken over the fact that you aren’t the greatest.  In fact---dare we even think it?  Do we even dare to hear the words that are quickly going to come from our lips this morning?   If you were to look Jesus in the eyes this morning and say to him---ask him---“Lord, who is the greatest?” do you know what he would say?  Do you know how he would answer that troublesome question?  He would look right back into your eyes like he does so often if you will but make eye contact with him.  And Jesus, your Savior, would say to you, “I think you are the greatest.”  That’s my opinion.  That’s my record too.  I denied myself and took up my cross and went to Calvary with it because I thought you were the greatest.  I considered your life greater than mine.  I gave mine so that yours could continue on into eternity.


Which of the one hundred sheep the Shepherd had did he consider the greatest?  It was the lost one!  So who is the greatest?  You are!  You can say it this way, “I am the greatest.”  When you look at Jesus and his work in your life and his promises to you about your life to come, you have to come to the conclusion, “He loves me so!”  I must be his greatest.  There is plenty of love to go around in that place of greatest.  You and I can both fit in there.  We can know Jesus feelings about who is the greatest.  We can both say out loud and together, “I am!”


Know that this is how your Savior feels about you.  Know it often.  Know it always.  Amen.