Who is the Greatest?

Mark 9:30-37

The disciples are thick-headed, of course. Or at least that seems to be the impression Mark wants to leave with us as he portrays their conversation with Jesus now. I mean, can there be any other reasonable explanation for the content of their conversation immediately in the wake of Jesus’ harrowing description of what following him entails? We shake our heads in confusion or disbelief at their seemingly silly argument. And then we look again and we see ourselves mirrored back, don’t we?

For this is so. Much of life as we live it now can be experienced as competition as to “who is best.” Or at least “better.” For instance, we are in the midst of a baseball pennant race here in Chicago.  I have good friends and family members who would prefer to see the Milwaukee Brewers best the Chicago Cubs and even between people who love each other, the banter can sometimes get a little edgy. It seems that competition is bred into us from the very start in classrooms and workplaces, in neighborhoods and families.  We measure ourselves over and against one another as we seek to discern our place in the whole scheme of things.

Indeed, just last night I accepted the invitation to attend the annual “First National Challenge” between neighboring high school rivals DeKalb and Sycamore.  This yearly contest is staged on the football field of Northern Illinois University so as to give neither team the home field advantage. (It also serves as a wonderful opportunity to raise significant money for both schools’ athletic programs.) And yes, the loyalties run deep as year after year young people (and highly invested parents and alumni) vie for the privilege of saying their team won this year. To say they are the ‘greatest.’ It turns out DeKalb will enjoy that privilege for the coming months.

Only this is so. As I opened today’s paper to read the commentary on the game, another headline jumped out saying that this may be the last such contest for a while. It seems that conferences are being redrawn and that Sycamore and DeKalb may not be in the same conference in the coming years. Sycamore has already been accepted into another conference, but DeKalb has not yet found a ‘home’ — presumably because conferences hesitate to accept new member schools who might beat them. (Not so different, it seems to me, from that which plagues our nation in terms of gerrymandering — where lines are drawn to ensure the continued victories of those already in power!) We want to be ‘best,’ don’t we? We want to be seen as ‘greatest’ even at the expense of a truly fair contest. And in so doing, what matters most often gets traded for the false and hollow victories accompanied by ribbons which fade and trophies which gather dust in attic boxes.

So it was that Friday night I attended the game. Except I only went to the sophomore game and only part of it at that. Such competitions are exhilarating, and they do invite those who participate to stretch and grow. I enjoy them. I left early, though, because I had somewhere else I also wanted to be.

Perhaps it is in your community as well: The Children’s Community Theater Penguin Project. I try to make it a priority to go every year, whether I know someone in the production or not. For this is how it works. Children and young people with disabilities are the stars of the show. They are accompanied by same-age mentors who, for the most part, fade into the background on the stage, but as needed will prompt a forgotten line, guide a young woman who is blind, push the wheel chair of another, and through it all support the show with their voices raised in song. It is simply beautiful. And it is not something that happens overnight. Rather, for months these children work together under the direction of dedicated and talented adults to bring the community a production which will make you laugh and leave you in tears. Here is what stays with me now: unlike what we experience in most of the world, this is not about competition, except to help one another do a little better. And everyone, actor, mentor, and audience member alike leaves sensing they have been part of something that matters: something that could well change the world.

It was a night of contrasts for me and one that brought me a little bit closer to seeing and understanding the intent of this week’s Gospel lesson. For just as was so with the disciples so long ago, competition  can tend to drive us and at its worst it can well drive us apart. Jesus calls us to another way, surely with his lived example and also with his words.

So back to that football game between DeKalb and Sycamore. Unlike the usual venue for such a contest, the Northern Illinois University Stadium is huge. Its capacity to seat fans is far greater than even the number of spectators this storied rivalry draws. For this reason, I expect, the practice is for all the fans to sit on the same side of the stadium, not across from one another as would normally be the case. And while the spectators tend to cluster with those of like-minded loyalty, still, they share the same view and of necessity cross paths as they find their seats or go to the concession stand. There is an ‘all in this together’ feeling in the stands as those who watch encounter people they work with or worship with or exercise with from both communities and who playfully greet one another on their way.

And that surely is at least part of Jesus’ point today. Those disciples are ‘all in this together,’ even as are you and I, regardless of where we come from or where we are going. No, it is not about ‘who is greatest.’ Except to say that Jesus was just that, and we know his way of living that ‘greatness’ was radically different from what the world normally measures as ‘great.’ No, it is not about who among us ‘is greatest.’ Indeed, it never really was.

  • What do you make of the disciples’ argument ‘on the way’ today? How and where do you see us reflected in them today?
  • What examples in the world do you see of being ‘last of all and servant of all’ as Jesus was and is? How does that help you understand the scene before us today?
  • How might living in the way Jesus calls us to today just change the world? How have you seen this to be so?