Who Will Be the Greatest?

“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourself – it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

  Paul, Ephesians 2:8-10

While we are on this earth nothing is more important to us than humility.  We shall never completely know ourselves if we don’t strive to know God.  By gazing at His grandeur we get in touch with our own lowliness; by looking at His purity, we shall see our own filth; by pondering His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.

 Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle

The Encounter

 46An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” 

 49“Master,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” 

50“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” 

Luke 9:46-50

Some Observations

Okay, you kind of have to laugh here.  The disciples have just failed to cast out demons, got scared out of their wits on the Sea of Galilee . . . meanwhile they have watched Jesus be transfigured, raise a bunch of people from the dead, cast out demons, calm the sea, feed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, humble the Pharisees and teach in a way that “amazed” the multitudes.  And here they are, arguing over which among them is the greatest.  The more things change, the more they stay the same – our nature is timeless!  The good news is that Jesus hand-picked these guys, so the fact that they are exhibiting the same behaviors that we know our own susceptibility to provides some comfort.

We know that Jesus likes visuals and stories to reinforce his teaching.  Here he takes a child to stand beside him to illustrate two things: first, when we welcome a child in Jesus’ name we welcome Jesus and God the Father; second, that we must become like a child – becoming the least – to become the greatest.  In welcoming a child, we welcome Christ.  Our embrace of a child or any other in need of care, love, teaching, encouragement (with nothing to offer in return) is embracing Christ.  In becoming childlike ourselves (dependent, humble, simple, lack of pretense, desire to learn, aware of our needs and the lack of ability to meet them ourselves) we become great. 

Another 180-degree flip against culture Jesus proposes here.  Isn’t the goal of life to become mature, capable, successful and self-dependent?  We need to examine our own egos and pride . . . how we need to “lead,” how we jockey for position, how we want to “win,” make the most money, have the best stuff, live in the best place, be sought out by the powerful, be respected, be invited into the right social circles, etc.  Another warning against all the self-centered distractions that Jesus has already told us choke off fruitfulness and prevent the life to the full he promises for those who follow him and his teaching.  There is no recorded response from the disciples.  We are not sure if they were just squirming on their rocks or this concept was simply too counterintuitive to make immediate sense. 

Having been shut down on Point A, the disciples move immediately on to Point B.  They are up in arms that another person who “is not one of us” is driving out demons in Jesus’ name and have tried to stop him.  One senses frustration (they just failed to cast out a demon themselves and Jesus had to step in to do it), jealousy, judgment, exclusion and superiority . . . precisely the lack of humility Jesus just warned against. 

Jesus instructs them not to stop him, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”  Jesus must feel he is pounding his head against the wall at times, but is incredibly patient with these guys.  How the church needs to hear Jesus’ message here!  As do we all.  Among denominations (and even within denominations), we so easily focus on points of disagreement on secondary or tertiary matters and spend our efforts on making our case and convincing the other group they are wrong (hello, pride).  Meanwhile, opportunities for ministry partnerships go unrealized or, worse yet, we look on the ministry efforts of churches we don’t agree with on all points with suspicion or disdain.

This is not to say that points of doctrine, theology and church practice and governance should not be debated – there are critical elements of the orthodox faith that define our very identity in Christ (and views that are directly heretical to Scripture should be called out and correction sought).  We must not shy away from articulating and defending these beliefs, appealing to Scripture as our foundational reference.  Yet disagreement with others in the body of Christ should never become a stumbling block to loving one another, seeking unity and serving in the name of Jesus together.

Lord, bring us greater desire to serve you by serving those in need all around us, humbly and unified with others you have called to similar service.  Humility, humility, humility . . . 


“Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him from times of trouble.  The Lord will protect him and preserve his life; he will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desires of his foes.  The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness.”

  Psalm 41:1-3

A Prayer

“Be pleased, O Lord, to save me; O Lord, come quickly to help me.  May all who seek to take my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned to disgrace.  May those who say to me, ‘Aha!  Aha!’ be appalled at their own shame.  But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, ‘The Lord be exalted!’”

  Psalm 40:13-16