October 21, 2018

People of a certain age—like me—will recognize to whom the title “The Greatest” once referred in American popular culture.  He used that description to speak about himself: “I’m the greatest.”  It was the world heavyweight champion boxer Mohammad Ali, who died not long ago.  So what made him, and so many other followers of him, think that he was “great?”  It was because he physically beat up more strong men in the boxing ring for a longer period of time than anybody else in the history of that “sport.”  Sometimes he punched them unconscious.  Sometimes he merely bloodied them.  “The Greatest.”

The greatest people I’ve ever known or heard about never physically hit anybody, and they never were the creators of their own self-identity as “great.”  So what exactly do we think we are talking about when we use the word “great” in sentences that describe people or cultures or movements in history?  We’ve been doing it a lot for centuries now, so one might think that we’d try to figure out what the word means.

That is exactly the invitation of Jesus in today’s gospel of Mark: What does “great” mean?  As human beings think of it, unfortunately, it almost always attaches to demonstrators of worldly or even violent accomplishments.

     • The Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt was called “The Great” around the time of Moses and the Exodus of Israel because he built great cities and won great battles, both on the backs of brutal slave labor.  It that great?

     • Alexander the Great of Greece, in the 4th century B.C. invaded and destroyed more lands in battle than anyone before, as he secured his empire.  Is that great?

     • Empress Catherine “The Great” ruled Russia in the 18th century after she arranged to have her husband assassinated.  She too was a conqueror of the lands of other people.  Is that great?

     • Wayne Gretzky was called “The Great One” because in the late 20th century he scored more goals in the NHL hockey than anyone before or since.  Is that great?

Our Roman Catholic church has not been exempt from this either.  We honor several saints on our liturgical calendar whom we describe as “The Great”… a few popes like Leo and Gregory, and a few theologians like Albert.  Why?  Almost always it is because of some conspicuous political or doctrinal victory that lays bare their cleverness or bravery or celebrity status.  Is that great?  There’s nothing wrong with being clever or brave or popular, but is that what it means to be great?  We live now in a political moment in which the great rallying cry has been “Make America Great Again.”  What exactly does that mean?  

In the light of the gospel today, we Christians don’t have to wonder about that because Jesus gives us about as straightforward an answer to that question as he ever does in Sacred Scriptures.

Here’s what he says:  

“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servants; and whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

Is that what we think we’re speaking about when we use the work “great” in descriptions of people and slogans about organizing our common life?  Is it?  

This is a very uncomfortable message for me and for a lot of us who are accustomed to evaluating “greatness” in exactly the wrong way, and Jesus intended it in just that regard.  He had two of his closest disciples engaged in conversation, people whom he loved but who had set their sights on becoming “great” because of having followed the Lord.  Jesus wanted them to be great also, but he was aware that they completely misunderstood the meaning and the demands of that word, as it related to his mission.

In our ordinary course of thinking and speaking about it, so-called “great” people accomplish much and suffer little.  They are held in esteem by many and are not the objects of ridicule, humiliation or misunderstanding.  “Great” people seem to be in control of their own destinies and one of the manipulators of their own apparent success.  Absolutely none of that was true for Jewish Christians in this world.

And in our ordinary way of pondering the so-called “greatness” of societies or nations or cultures, they are the ones that get their way by bending others to their will, often by violence and military when necessary.  “Great” societies, we imagine are those that can threaten or purchase or extort or simply ignore others who seem to be weaker or more vulnerable.  The great ones make the rules of engagement, and enforce them brutally when they are threatened.  Again, absolutely none of that was true of the mission and ministry of Jesus in this world.  And the scary part for us is that none of that is true in our summons to discipleship either.  

“Go ahead and aspire to greatness,” Jesus says.  “But here’s what that involves…

     • You will suffer, as will I
     • You must serve the rest, as do I
     • You must willingly become weak in the face of human authority and cruelty, as do I
     • And you must be ready to give your very life in the course of remaining faithful to God and the mission—as will I.

If being great is your desire, for yourselves as well as your communities and commitments, that’s the demand.  Can you do it?”

“You bet we can!”  Came the quick response from James and John, validating Jesus’ words they had no idea what they were saying.  It is just a few chapters later in Mark’s gospel, at the moment of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane that he reports that “they all left him and fled.”  No mention of James or John as being any exceptions.

All of us are here at the Eucharist because we aspire to be great as disciples, great in our response to Jesus’ summons to follow his lead and to remain with him.  That is the most noble goal in the world, provided we understand what it means.


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Pax Christi Catholic Community

12100 Pioneer Trail
Eden Prairie, MN 55347


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