Sunday, September 24, 2006

Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven

I think it was an episode of the TV medical series ER that included a scene in which two little boys were engaged in a fierce argument. One of the doctors asked them what they were arguing about, and they said that they were arguing about who would win if Superman and Batman got in a fight. One little boy argued that Superman would certainly win because he was the "man of steel" and is "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound". The other little boy said that Batman would win because he would use kryptonite to disable Superman.

Well, that's the kind of thing that little boys argue about. Older boys (and men) argue about which football, baseball, or basketball team is the greatest, and sometimes they argue about which country is the greatest. We call those latter arguments wars.

It is difficult to imagine grown men having the kind of discussion described in today's reading from Mark. "...when he was in the house, Jesus asked them, 'What were you discussing on the way?' But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest".

Unless we are Muhammad Ali, we don't usually go around chanting, "I'm the greatest", and I think that even Ali said that a little tongue in cheek. No, we aren't usually so open in asserting our superiority over others. But we do have subtle ways of doing it. There is something in human nature that makes us want to let others know that we think we are superior. We call it drive or ambition. It makes some seek political office; it makes others work to become CEO of their company. And others demonstrate that they are ahead of others by amassing wealth or possessions.

Now, there is nothing wrong with ambition per se. There is something healthy in a degree of competition. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to do the best one can in one's job or in athletics or in school.

The problem comes when we start comparing ourselves with others. If on some level we are saying, "I want to show that I am better or stronger or smarter than Sam or Mary", then something is wrong with our competitiveness.

That appears to be why Jesus rebuked his disciples. They had one idea of greatness; Jesus had another. Their idea of greatness seems to have been about having more -- more money, more success, more power. Jesus' idea of greatness seems to have been about giving more. "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise."

Jesus' own life represented a different standard of greatness. And as if that weren't enough, Mark says, "he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me".

True greatness, Jesus seems to be saying, is not in having but in giving. It is not in stepping on others in order to climb the ladder but in being attentive to the needs and concerns of others.

Now, that was really a kind of strange thing to do. Notice that Jesus said nothing about childlike innocence. You are probably more familiar with the way this same story is told in Matthew's gospel. It is Matthew, not Mark, who adds the famous line, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven". Matthew appears to be saying that Jesus was urging his followers to become innocent and pure again, like little children.

But Mark does not include that line, and I prefer Mark's account of this story. Now, don't misunderstand me; I like children (really, I do!!). But children can be remarkably quarrelsome. They can come to blows when they argue about the relative superiority of Batman and Superman. We don't enter the world as innocent, unselfish creatures. We enter the world as selfish creatures and have to learn unselfishness by sharing our toys and cookies with others.

Jesus says that true greatness is found in being a servant. And he showed them what he was talking about by picking up a child. Jesus picked up the child and set him in the midst of the disciples not because he was urging the disciples to become childlike (nor, as pop psychologists of our day might say, to urge them to "get in touch with their inner child"). The child is not the model of greatness; the child and those like the child are the ones we are to serve. The child represents the weak and the helpless, those who cannot take care of themselves.

"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but hiim who sent me".

Service to the weak and the helpless, then, is service to Christ. Receiving children, visiting the sick, praying with the dying, giving food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless -- that is the test of greatness.

I'm not good at it. If I had been among Jesus' disciples, I might not have been openly discussing who was the greatest, but I probably would have been wondering about it and trying to figure out how to get Jesus to notice and praise me.

However, I know that it has been in those moments when I have been the servant rather than the one being served that I have felt the presence of God most strongly.

I remember the Christmas of 1978. I had graduated from Harvard the previous June and still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. My mother was the principal of a rural elementary school, and she asked if I would play the piano for the Christmas program. That was about the last thing I wanted to do. Harvard graduates weren't supposed to play upright pianos in the cafeterias of rural elementary schools. They were supposed to work for large investment firms on Wall St. or for senators in Washington or be trying to make partner in prestigious law firms. But I was playing Christmas carols for school children.

I went with a bad attitude and played sullenly, until the special education students started to sing. "Special ed" is, of course, a euphemism. These are the physically and mentally handicapped children. But in spite of their handicaps, or maybe because of them, these children sang with joy. Christmas really meant something to them. They felt special as they stood on the stage and people listened to them and their parents and relatives beamed with pride. And I felt ashamed that I had been so reluctant to be there and play for an hour or so. And then I started to feel a kind of warmth or contentment, call it the "spirit of Christmas". The presence of God, maybe? But I was glad I was there.

Just after Mother Teresa’s death The New Yorker featured an article by a physician who had worked with her. He concluded by saying, "As for the ending of her own life, I think she would have found something wastful in any sort of mass tribute to mark her death. 'Get on with it', she might have said. 'There is work to do.' She might have said, as she did say to many who visited her, 'Make your life something beautiful for God.'"

And that is a pretty good paraphrase of what Jesus said to the disciples who were discussing which of them was the greatest, and what he might say to those of us worrying about making more money or getting promoted, "Get on with it! There’s work to do. Make your life something beautiful for God".