Who is the Greatest?

Beth Demme Blog Leave a Comment

Several years ago, I got a neat gift from an aunt who lives in Baltimore. She sent me a football autographed by Johnny Unitas—the Hall of Fame quarterback who played for the Colts when they were in Baltimore.

Being in the Hall of Fame is a definite indication that a player is a G.O.A.T., one of the Greatest of All Time.

In Mark 9, we read about a time when the disciples argued amongst themselves about who was the GOAT. There wasn’t a Hall of Fame, but maybe they were thinking of starting one.

How would the disciples have measured greatness? In sports, it’s fairly objective. The player with the best statistics is lauded as the greatest. In ministry, it doesn’t work that way.

One theory I have is that the disciples were talking about their own greatness because they couldn’t deal with what Jesus had just said.

Jesus was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But the disciples did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Mark 9:31-32)

The disciples were confused and afraid.

Sometimes in times of distress, instead of facing what’s right in front us, we find it emotionally easier to react to what might be next.

For example, in a family where a beloved family member is nearing the end of their days, people might start bickering about who will get their stuff (a china tea set, the good silverware, the collection of VHS tapes, or whatever). It’s a defense mechanism because now we don’t have to think about the hard thing, the loss of a beloved. In some families, it’s a bonus if this causes an argument because we can deal with that for years and never really deal with our underlying grief.

Maybe you or someone you care about has experienced something like that.

Misplaced anxiety makes it hard for us to think straight. The disciples have not heard—or comprehended—what Jesus says about resurrection because they are anxious about his betrayal and death. Instead of dealing with their confusion and grief, they argue about something meaningless—who among them is the greatest.

Jesus, recognizing the anxiety the disciples feel, responds to their distraction technique in a beautiful way. He doesn’t reprimand them or tell them they are being ridiculous. Instead, he shifts their attention completely off of themselves.

They’ve been arguing about greatness, so Jesus shows them how to be great; how to be the GOAT.

Jesus takes a little child into his arms. There’s no sense of hurry or anxiety coming from Jesus. He just takes this child into his arms and tells the disciples, “whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

The word “welcome” appears FOUR times in that one verse. Dr. Clifton Black, an expert on the Gospel of Mark, says the disciples “are so dense that light bends around them.”

Jesus is leaving nothing to chance here. Being the greatest is about welcoming, welcoming, welcoming, welcoming.

In Jesus’ day, children had no status. He tells the disciples—he tells US—to welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome those who have no status.

The disciples wanted to be great. We want to be great. We want our lives to mean something. It’s natural.

The greatness we typically pursue is self-centered, it’s about what we can accomplish and what others say we’ve done well. It isn’t the kind of greatness that reflects our love for God.

It is, in fact, the kind of greatness that fades.

Just like the Johnny Unitas signature on the football my aunt gave me.

Within a few days of receiving the football all those years ago, I put it in a special case that would protect it from dust and grimy fingers.

I thought I had done what was needed to preserve it, to make it last. But I was wrong … it wasn’t the kind of thing that lasts forever.

How do you define greatness? Do you think about it as something you can accomplish or something you do for God? Tell me about it in the comments, in an email, or on Facebook.

More like this from Beth:

Beth preached about this on September 19, 2021, at Gray Memorial UMC:

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