Religion Magazine

Don't Go Up. Go Down. Mark 9.30-37

By Malcolmdrogers
Mark 9.30-37
Who is the greatest?
Who is at the top?
We think of life like a ladder.
The greatest is at the top. And we want to go up.
When you are at the top, you have power and status. People do what you say. You are in control. You set the rules. You are the head and not the tail.
Which country is the greatest? Which country has the most hard power (nuclear weapons), soft power, wealth, highest standard of living.
I come from a country called Great Britain.
Many people in Great Britain like to think that that is because we are great – we ruled the seas, we had a great empire – and you will hear some politicians claim that we need to regain that greatness.
But the origin of the word ‘great’, is I’m afraid, far more mundane. Britain was the name used for the islands on the western most part of Europe. One of the islands was smaller and the other was larger. So one was known as smaller Britain (what we know today as Ireland) and the other was known as greater, bigger Britain.
Or we argue about which is the greatest team – of today or of all time
Or about those who we consider to be the greatest: the strongest, the fittest, the fastest.
When I was growing up there was a legendary boxer called Mohammed Ali. He claimed that he was the greatest.
Time magazine often publish a list of the 100 most influential people of the year. I guess you could say that they are the greats.
Jesus disciples argued about who was at the top. 
They have been with him for 3 years, and yet here they are, arguing about which of them is the greatest. Who is the most important? Who is the most significant?
And another gospel tells how James and John ask Jesus for the top two places in heaven. And when the other disciples hear about it, they are furious.
And let us not kid ourselves. We are no different to the disciples.
We also want the top spot. We also are trying to go up that ladder, to overtake the next person: in whatever category we’ve chosen to play.
I’m the most attractive, the most clever, the most important, the strongest, richest, most influential person. My children are more able than yours or have better jobs than yours.
Who is the most important, most valuable, most significant person in my place of work, in my office, in my club, in my circle of friends, in my church?
And please do not think that priests and ministers are no different. Often when clergy get together, people will ask, 'How big is your church, how big is your congregation? And what they are really asking is, ‘how seriously should I take you?’ – because obviously, the bigger your congregation the greater you are. And I used to love boasting that in the UK I was vicar of one of the largest parish church buildings in the country.
It is very sad, and a bit pathetic.
It is rooted in deep insecurity.
And the tragedy is that pride, and the flip side of pride, envy, kills. It burns you up and it destroys the other.
We look at that person further up the ladder and we resent what they have (especially if they are like us). And we want what they have. And it poisons us and destroys relationships.
James, in chapter 3, writes about it.
He mentions envy in v14 and warns us that this is nothing to be proud about. Instead we need to be honest and confess our envy
In v16 he tells us that envy leads to disorder and wickedness
It is so true. When we envy someone, we want bad to happen to them. We are wanting to hear that they have fallen, come down a peg or two, a rung or two. We love to hear gossip about them, and we are not above spreading gossip about them.
In chapter 4v2, he tells us that coveting (it is another form of envy) is at the root of dispute, conflict, even of war.
And in chapter 3 v15, he talks of envy, and all of this, this scramble to get to the top, as devilish wisdom.
This week in Morning Prayer we have been reading through the book of Wisdom.
You find the book in the apocrypha – those books that were written after the OT ends and before the NT begins. They are not to be treated as having the same authority as the OT and the NT, but they are full of profound insights through which God speaks to us.
And in Wisdom 6.23 we find that wisdom is contrasted with ‘sickly envy’. ‘For envy does not associate with wisdom’.
So how do we deal with all of this. And how do we cope with envy?
1. James has some suggestions for us:
He tells us to seek wisdom, true wisdom, wisdom from above, God’s wisdom.
He tells us that if we lack wisdom we should ask God for wisdom, but ask in confidence trusting that God will give it to us.
I used to think that asking for wisdom was asking for specific guidance: the wisdom to know what job to do, where to and what to study, who to go out with, who to marry, where I should live?
Or maybe we think that asking for wisdom is asking God to help us solve all problems.
We talk of the wisdom of Solomon. I’d love to tell you a story about Solomon’s wisdom but this is not the place, and you can read the story in 1 Kings 3.
And so we pray for wisdom to make right decisions, so that we can become wise like an owl.
But the wisdom that James is writing about is slightly different. 
Yes, it helps you become wise and it helps you make right decisions, but it is more than that.
James 3:17: “But the wisdom from above” (the heavenly wisdom in contrast to the devilish wisdom that leads to envy) is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17)
I love that. It is a verse that should be learnt. It is a verse we should repeat to ourselves when out walking, or on the metro, or when we are awake at the night. We repeat it, take it deep into us, and then we pray it, asking God to give us, to fill us, with this wisdom.
2. Jesus has some advice for us.

He is far more radical.
He turns the ladder of greatness that leads to envy upside down!
Or rather, Jesus turns our standards upside down, so that what we think is at the top is in fact at the bottom, and what we think is at the bottom is at the top.
When he hears that the disciples have been arguing about who is the greatest, he sits down, calls the twelve, and says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35
Life for the Christian is not about a race to the top, but about learning to begin to take a journey to the bottom.
That might sound good, but how do we begin to do that in the world that we live in.
Are we all called to give up everything and take monastic vows?
Jesus personally told a rich young ruler (someone who was very near the top of the ladder) to sell all that he had and follow him, and he couldn’t do it, so how does Jesus expect us to begin this journey to the bottom?
But he helps us here. He takes a child in his arms and he says that whoever welcomes this child in his name (for his sake and in his strength), welcomes him, and whoever welcomes him also welcomes the one who sent him. Mark 9:37
There is a lot going on here.
He is not saying that here that we need to become like little children. He says that in chapter 10, but not here.
The point here is that children have no status.
They are insignificant in the game of trying to reach the top. They can’t give you money or write you a reference. They give you no street cred. Nobody is going to be impressed if you tell them that you know little Amy who is 4 years old.
So Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to change, if you want to start living life by God’s wisdom, by God’s standards and not by the Devil’s wisdom and the world’s standards, then you begin by welcoming the most insignificant people, the ones who have no status, no power, no money, no influence.
This, I guess, is the wisdom that is ‘without a trace of partiality’.
Welcome them: be pleased to see them. Open yourself to them. Include them in your community, in the community of faith, in your decisions, in your life. Look at how you can serve them.
Because when you welcome them, you welcome Jesus – who identified himself with them, when he emptied himself of all the sort of things that we would call great, and hung naked and powerless on the cross.
And I also suspect that as we spend time with those who are the least powerful, who are – in our terms on the lowest rungs of the ladder – we will begin to realize that life is not about climbing the ladder, but that life is about love. That life is not about getting but giving, it is not about seeing who will serve you, but who you can serve.
And when we start to see that, what happens to envy?
You cannot ‘envy’ the ‘saint’, the one who is at the bottom of the ladder, the one who may be ridiculed, who has nothing, the one who has begun to serve people in Jesus name but who is full of freedom, of joy, of naked dependence upon God, and who is filled with the love of God.
You cannot envy them, but you can aspire to become like them.
So don’t look up – look down.
Welcome, in the name of Jesus, the people who are at the bottom.
Because at the very bottom of this ladder we see Jesus, crucified for us, who died for us, to bring us back to God, hanging on a cross, with arms open wide – welcoming us.

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