S THE CAR SWEPT BY US AND STOPPED AT THE RED LIGHT, I READ THE license plate frame: “The Greatest Mom in the World.” Later we met a jogger whose T-shirt announced “The Greatest Dad in the World.” What a coincidence that the greatest mom and the greatest dad (we’re talking about the world here) should live in the same town!
We have a hang-up with the words “the greatest.” We call our country the greatest, although I’ve heard other countries referred to in the same way by their own residents. We have the greatest army, the greatest athletes, and so on. The word “greatest” even reaches to churches. Do we stand in awe of those with money, education, or family connections? Do we esteem some church members greater than others using our own personal criteria?
It is not surprising, therefore, that Jesus’ disciples had a problem with determining who was “the greatest.” While Jesus was in Galilee, He tried to tell them He must go to Jerusalem where He would be put to death and later would rise again, but His words fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t their hearing that was at fault—it was their hearts. They read into His words a meaning that wasn’t there when He told them of His imminent humiliation and the cross that was just before Him. Actually, the hope arose again in their hearts that Jesus’ kingdom would be set up very soon. This led to speculation as to who would be “the greatest” in the kingdom.
The mother of James and John requested of Jesus: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Matt. 20:21). Jesus answered her plainly: “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father” (verse 23). The rest of the disciples, in a flurry of pretended indignation, became vexed at James and John’s presumption, though probably they were mostly annoyed that they had gotten to Jesus first!
Again the disciples asked Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1). Jesus then “called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (verses 2-4).
The disciples didn’t understand the nature of Christ’s kingdom, which was built on love and humility. They were focused on personal “greatness.” It wasn’t until later, when the disciples looked back on the life of Christ—His humility, His labors for the poor and needy, His suffering and death—did they realize what He had been trying to teach them. Only when they learned these lessons were they able to be effective workers for God, boasting not in their “greatness” but in the greatness of God’s mercy.
When we today look at the cross, do we realize there is nothing in us about which we can boast? Paul tells us that if we boast, let us boast in the Lord (see 1 Cor. 1:31). “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18).
What a goal to strive for—not to be “first,” but just to be people whom the Lord commends.
Edna May Olsen lived in Simi Valley, California, when she wrote this article.