Who is the greatest? Mark 9:33-37 by LLM Gerry Stacey

Unfortunately we missed the recording of the beginning of Gerry’s talk but you can here the rest above.

Who is the greatest? Reminded of last night’s boxing match after which people are comparing Anthony Joshua to Mohammed Ali. Well Ali told us I am the Greatest. But how different that is Joshua who lets his actions tell the story.

Jesus’ is even more subtle than that. We know from some of his reactions in Marks gospel that several times he actually tells the disciples not to tell anyone when he has performed a miracle or cured someone.

Indeed when in our gospel today Jesus addresses that question from the disciples he transforms that response by taking a child in his arms and showing that the greatest is not the one with the most accumulated power, but the one who is empty of power in the world.

He uses the example of the child but you could replace ‘child’ with anyone who is relentlessly side-lined or left out of what we tend to think of as great.

The first reading today tells us we still live in a world of accumulation: the drawing to ourselves of things like power, cars, money possessions and the admiration of others.

If we think this is what makes us great, then the gospel warns us that we are seriously deluding ourselves.

That reading describes in hard hitting terms the corrosiveness of this acquisitive approach to life.

But Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks to be great.  Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love to anyone, even the little children who in his time had no rights no privileges, even no legal identity.

But Jesus’ story today like so often is multi layered like an onion, it has meaning within meaning. He starts off by telling his disciples he is going to die. They did not understand so we need to recognise that the second part of the reading is being told because they did not understand the first part. It is an explanation of the first part.

It is about service which is the greatest grace. It is a spiritual issue. It is reflected in our current season of harvest, of going out and planting, of growing and gathering in. This is another layer of the onion.

As Jesus tells us, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12.24)

And this is at the heart of the Eucharist we will celebrate shortly.  Christ exists for more than himself. Jesus Christ lived, died and reigns to draw us to the source of life.

And this is a layer of the onion that leads us to the core.

This shapes who we are as stewards. Jesus is telling us that he is dying to be a good steward to us. It is a gratuitous transaction, a gift without cost, where the ordinary, the meagre, the empty, becomes divine, lavish and overflowing.

The spirit never stops breathing on you and me transforming the offering of our lives: our hopes and ambitions, our work and worth and our giving.

I have been thinking often of Assisi this summer, not just because in a spectacularly hot one I remember the week I spent there with my family when the temperature was in the 40’s and in the true faith of St Francis everyone was making water and shelter available to all.  I also remember that in St. Francis’ prayer which was my wife’s favourite he deliberately connects giving and receiving directly to the resurrection, saying ‘It is in giving that we receive, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life’.

And so we come to the centre of the onion the core of truth that Jesus offers us in everything he said and did. Love is our driving force, and love demands something of us. Often more than we’re prepared to give. Jesus is telling us that if we give love to all, even the children and the weak that we will be giving to him, giving to god and that that love is not only what we ourselves need but what God offers us freely with Jesus own sacrifice, and that love will transform us body and soul.

So who is the weak and the child? How can we love them? How can we sacrifice for them to show them hospitality? What can we give up to show them how much we and God love them? And how will we be transformed by that love?

The disciples had to give away ambition and see that the littlest child is the greatest. Christ’s hands stayed open to receive the nails on the cross, as he clung to nothing other than God’s mercy.

We need to stretch out our hands to give and to receive, by God’s grace we may keep our hands and hearts open and receive his mercy, But outstretched hands are both giving and receiving hands.

How often do you sit down and reflect on how your giving and receiving for the day has balanced out? AS Jesus said Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Whatever you do for the weakest child you do for Jesus.


Mark 9:33–37(NRSV)

Who Is the Greatest?

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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