In the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks one of the most critical questions of his life. It’s one that churches ought to post over sanctuaries, altars, and Sunday school classrooms. I know I give weight and almost hyperbolic importance to nearly everything Jesus says or does. However, this one is right near the top.
Allow me to set the scene. Jesus and the disciples are still in and around Capernaum. When they had entered a house (we don’t know whose home), Jesus asked them a question. “What were you arguing about during the journey?” That’s the question. You’ll find it in Mark 9:33.
We know that question like the back of your hand. It’s been a long journey, drowned out by radio fights and the occasional loud, unintelligible argument. Once you pull into the driveway, there is a moment of peace and a deep breath of relaxation. You are home. As you step from the car and make your way toward the gate, the steps, and the door the rumblings once contained to the car slowly emerge from those who managed to grab much less luggage from the back of the vehicle. It is then you realize that whatever argument or disagreement that ruined the last three hours of your car ride is about to cross the threshold into your home. The dispute about someone’s makeup, a text message, or who is in a relationship with “you know who” is not going to stay in the car. It’s nowhere, with you, blocking your way to the bathroom. Hence you feel the need to ask the question, “What were you arguing about during the journey?”
You know what the argument was about. Jesus knew what the disciples were discussing. He wanted to hear them say it. It was important, as we tell our children, for them to use their words. What did they think they were discussing? With some distance and a bit of perspective, what were they fighting about? Here’s where it gets silly. I know this will seem unbelievable. The disciples were debating each other on who is the “greatest.” Yes, that sounds utterly ridiculous. Grown men were debating one another about who is the “greatest” in the “Muhammad Ali” sense of the word. Can you imagine such nonsense? It seems so out of character for religious people to be concerned about achieving “greatness” in heaven or the afterlife. Jesus is not concerned with status in the same way as corporate America or the Roman Empire. My mind is blown.
No, it’s not. Nothing about this passage surprises me. What does amaze me is how infrequently we read Mark 9 and how we seem never to apply Jesus’ question to our own lives. “What were you arguing about during the journey?”
Who is the greatest Methodist?
Who is the most significant Christian?
Who are the legitimate heirs to John Wesley?
Who is the most revered teacher of tradition?
Who is the holiest interpreter of ancient doctrine?
There’s never been a more appropriate question for Methodists to ask each other. We’re all on a journey, and we’re doing an excellent job trying to convince ourselves (through various commissions and reports) that we’re not arguing with another. We know what we’re doing. No one is fooled. As one who loves a good argument, I admit this without hesitation or reservation.
Here’s the problem: if our arguments slide into calls for supremacy, superiority, and salvation through an understanding of our own prestige, you’re no longer following Jesus. An idea of one’s greatness mixed with a smug sense of self-satisfaction at possessing a monopoly on God’s truth will not lead us to the least or the last. Prominence does not lead to the Cross, flooded towns, separated families or anywhere the suffering call home.
Whatever greatness is, Jesus indicates at the end of this passage, it is the opposite of welcome. To seek influence is to build barriers between Jesus and those who need Jesus most. Power makes it challenging to welcome strangers. As we compete for preeminence in our churches and denomination, we are less able to embrace the most vulnerable members of our community. Greatness comes at a cost. We give up being the church. To remain the church we want to be we lose the ability to be the church Christ called us to be. The choice is stark, we can either be “great,” or we can be followers of Jesus.
Is there really a debate to be had? I hope not. Oh, if you’d like to argue with me about how non-great I am, I’ll be outside.
Richard Lowell Bryant