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The most common argument among the early disciples of Jesus focused on their desire to be considered the greatest.
We might find it unusual and disturbing that they openly pursued self-promotion, but the core issues underlying their preoccupation with status are far more common than many would admit. Perhaps we don’t flagrantly advertised interest in greatness, but that doesn’t mean we are free from concerns about how others regard us.
Who is considered greatest?
During the final days of Jesus’ mission on earth, He ate with his disciples and during the meal drew attention to the bread as symbolic of the giving of his body for them and the cup as symbolic of “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:19-20).
Then (as Luke’s gospel records), the subject turned to the one who would betray Jesus. “the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!” (Luke 22:21-22).
At this, the disciples began to “question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this” (Luke 22:23). It’s stunning to move to the next verse and see how the conversation of the disciples shifted to a “dispute among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest” (Luke 22:24).
How cold to engage in this kind of dispute after hearing of the Lord’s sacrificial death and of one who would betray him! But Jesus seized the moment as a teaching opportunity about true greatness in his kingdom.
“Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’” (Luke 22:25-27).
Jesus does not oppose authority but requires a transformation of it. The normal practice of kings exercising authority will not do for the Lord’s kingdom. Benefactors were wealthy people whose giving secured status and leadership for them in their cities. This approach to giving as a means of self-advancement and self-promotion contradicted the Lord’s kingdom. Serving others to secure status for oneself is a betrayal of servant-love.
Preoccupied with perception
“which of them was considered to be greatest” (24; also, Luke 9:46-48). Look closely at the word “considered” because it reveals a common human concern for how others “regarded” them or how others “thought of” them. Let’s be honest about how easily we can become preoccupied with how we are regarded or considered by others. It’s tempting to build self-perception on how others perceive us. This is the underlying concern relating to preoccupation with status or greatness.
The dispute among the disciples is motivated by desires for self-promotion. It seems to reveal a deeper insecurity and a need for recognition and affirmation from others. It’s not too far from the warning Jesus gave when he said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
The cultural environment of religious and political leadership during this time was focused on the pursuit of power, control and personal exaltation. Of course, this focus is always a danger for leaders. In a piece I wrote about the danger of insecure leaders, I stated that,
“Leaders are easily misunderstood and often wrongly judged as self-seeking and self-promoting. Sometimes they are guilty as charged. A leader unwilling to admit that he occasionally battles temptation toward self-promotion is probably one you shouldn’t follow. Yet people often wrongly project evil motives on leaders because they either feel threatened by them or jealous of them. Like most leaders, I’ve experienced the full spectrum. I’ve been guilty as charged and wrongly accused. I believe leaders are more vulnerable to selfish motives when they’re younger and more likely to be falsely accused when they’re older and more established in their leadership.”
For reflection and discussion
“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important (or, accepted). They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves” (or, to have others think well of them) (T. S. Eliot).
I added the words in brackets to cover the full range of issues involved in this concern.
Radical Kingdom re-orientation
Jesus rejected the patterns of greatness in society when he said, “But you are not to be like that.” He then set a new model before them in his own example, “But I am among you as one who serves.” This is the way Jesus summed up his entire mission, “The Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
Truth to confront preoccupation with self-perception
- “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (Romans 12:3, NIV)
- “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:3, ESV)
- “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:3-8).
- “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
- “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
- “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:10, NLT)