The Meaning of Greatness
PENTECOST 18 | James 3:13-4:3, 7-8; Mk 9:30-37
One of my greatest heroes is Charles Williams—I’ve preached about him before, and no doubt will again. I never visit Oxford without visiting his grave. He was a ground-breaking writer who single-handedly invented the urban fantasy genre. His novels were shattering for me when I first read them.
He first came to my attention, however, because of his proximity to two much more famous writers, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The three of them and other friends used to gather every Tuesday at a pub in Oxford to reach other their stories and discuss theology and writing. They called themselves the Inklings.
We know a lot about Lewis and Tolkien, but not so much about Williams. One character witness for him is Lewis himself, who said that it did not matter if Williams was talking to a bishop for barmaid—when he was talking to you, you were the center of his universe.
Williams was a complicated man, but that right there was a seed of goodness that God could work with. It’s a seed that makes me feel shamed by comparison.
Most of us have some sort of narcissistic wound—which manifests in different ways and to different degrees.
The way it has always manifested in me was a need to be seen as important by the people around me. If I was at a dinner party and the conversation was not circling around how awesome I was in some fashion, I’d be sure to drop a news bomb about whatever creative project I had just completed or was working on.
There’s nothing wrong with artists trumpeting their work, but there is something wrong with needing to be the center of attention at every gathering.
It was worse when I was unaware of it, and just acting out of my threatened ego’s need to be admired. As I grew older, I got some objective distance from that needy voice and gradually was able to make different choices. Oh, it still chatters away, but I no longer feel driven to give it voice, and instead have learned the joy of relishing another person’s success and admiring the way they shine without the need to hog the spotlight.
Granted, I do this imperfectly, but better every year, I think. [You must ask Lawson about my progress, since it is he who knows the most about my developmental arc.]
This need to be admired—to be seen as great—is one that goes deep in the human psyche. It feels so desperate, I think, because we secretly—or not so secretly—fear that it isn't true. And, I think there is an inverse relationship between the depth of our insecurity and our insistence on own greatness.
There are, of course, many different kinds of greatness, just as there are many different kinds of wisdom. In his letter James praises the kind of wisdom that results in gentleness contrasting it with the kind that results in boasting, which is driven by envy and selfish ambition.
What James asserts in his letter, Jesus shows with a visual aid—in this case, a child who just happens to be walking by.
Jesus, too, is comparing two kinds of wisdom and two kinds of greatness. He's embarrassed by his disciples, having just heard them arguing about which of them was the greatest. Just what, in this context, does it mean to be the greatest?
When Trump says he wants to make America great again, I think that, on the surface, he's talking about economic superiority in the world. Subliminally, however, I think he's talking about a return to the a simpler, nostalgiac time of white superiority.
When Muhammad Ali said, “I'm the greatest,” he was referring to his pugilistic superiority—I think.
When I interrupted the dinner conversation to let everyone know about some great project, I was asserting my superiority, too—or at least seeking some reassurance that I was not inferior.
But just what did the disciples mean—what kind of superiority were they asserting? Were they arguing about who was the best fisherman? Fair enough. Or, more ironically, who was the holiest?
We don't know, and it doesn't matter, because Jesus picks up a child turns their arguments on its ear by redefining greatness.
Referring to this child—arguably the most powerless person in society, always under somebody else’s authority and utterly without rights in his society—Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes this one welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In so doing, Jesus defines greatness not in terms of wealth or power for holiness or talent, but in terms of hospitality, in terms of kindness, in terms of love.
Do you want to know what greatness truly looks like? This is it, right here.
The reason Jesus gives for why we should value everyone is a little tricky, and it involves a theological concept known as “co-inherence.” You may or may not find it convincing, but hear him out for a minute.
In the mystical theology of our tradition, “co-inherence” refers to the interconnection of souls. Jews are sometimes spoken of as being “in Jacob.” All those who are “in Jacob,” are called “Israel,” just as Jacob was, and are the living extension of Jacob’s body. So Jesus and this presumably Jewish child were part of the mystical extension of Jacob’s body, which is why Jesus said what he did.
Likewise, in Xn theology, we who are baptized are also, on a mystical level, one being. As Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Whoever co-inheres with Jesus co-inheres with everyone else who is joined to Jesus. To welcome one is to welcome the other, because there is no distinction between them. We are all, mystically, limbs of the living body of Jesus.
Likewise, Jesus co-inheres with God. As he says in John, “I and God are one.” If Jesus is a limb of God, and we are limbs of Jesus, then by extension we are also limbs of God—each and every one of us. He’s asserting a chain of relationship, a chain of being, even of identity which demands of us the same esteem for the powerless as for the powerful—however it is we understand or esteem power today.
A person is not valuable because of what he or she can do for us. A person is not valuable because of how much money they have. A person is not valuable because of how many people say “How high?” when they say, “jump!”
And we can agree with this intellectually, but Oh! how hard it is to really get it, deep in our gut. How hard it is for us to love those who do not love us first, or well, or at all. How hard it is to esteem those we see as beneath us—intellectually, educationally, politically, spiritually, socially, creatively, or morally.
Bruce Cockburn sings, “Can it be so hard to love yourself without thinking someone else holds a lower card.” And yes, yes, apparently it is.
But this is the kind of radical reversal, the kind of revolutionary shift in values that Jesus is calling to. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you are hospitable only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the gentiles do that? Instead,” he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as God in heaven is perfect.”
The word “perfect” here is misleading, because he does not mean what we mean by it. He means, “be whole, be complete,” he means, “be holistic, don’t leave anyone out,” we might even translate it, “be universal,” or “all-inclusive.”
How’s that for a summary? “Be all-inclusive as God in heaven is all-inclusive”? And we should be all-inclusive because in the circle of God, the circle of grace, the circle of value, of esteem—no one is outside that circle. All people, of every nationality, of every religion, of every economic level, of every level of fascinating or repellent, all people co-inhere in God, are part of God, and therefore, a part of us; beloved of God, and therefore should be beloved by us.
Co-inherence was a favorite concept of Charles Williams, and like James says, he did not simply give kind words to people but lived out his love in his actions, by paying loving attention to every person he sat across from—seeing in them the very image, the very icon, of God. He inspires me to do the same. Let us pray…
In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in God, and you in me, and I in you.”
Jesus, help us to see ourselves for what we truly are—extensions of your body, united to you, and united to God. Help us to see everyone else that way, too. Help us not to value some people more than others because of how they dress or how they look or how much money they have, but to see the face of God in each and every one. Help us not to esteem ourselves more than others, either, lest we miss the chance to be blessed by them, which is to say, by you through them. We need corrective lenses, Jesus. Help us to see clearly, to value correctly, to love well. Amen.