Beware of the GOAT

My Dear Shepherds,

In reading the accounts of the disciples’ failures in Mark’s Gospel, I felt a little smug when I came to this:

When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33-34)

I’m not particularly humble but I honestly couldn’t remember ever thinking, “I’m the greatest.” Then reality intervened. None of the disciples was claiming to be the GOAT—the Greatest Of All Time. They were arguing about who was the Greatest Of All Twelve. In particular, who was best suited to be Jesus’ right-hand man.

I didn’t always do well in meetings with other leaders. On one of those leadership tests, I took long ago, I scored very low on collaboration. I can be the nicest guy in front of people, on a hospital call, or circulating in the foyer, but I can get temperamental in meetings. “This is my business,” I’d think. “I know more about this ministry stuff than you people do.” Maybe I even said such things. I didn’t think of myself as the greatest, but occasionally, as the most important. Hairsplitting, I know.

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to stop being so stupid, but he did upend their paradigm.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (v. 35)

We all want to matter, to do the most good. Pastors want to lead our people well. We don’t want them wandering aimlessly because we couldn’t set direction or address problems. Shepherds lead. That’s not arrogance; that’s being responsible. Jesus wasn’t telling us to devalue our spiritual gifts, talents, experience, job description. His words were relational. “The very last, and the servant of all” are about how we position ourselves in the relationships around us.

In Mark’s account Jesus had just told his disciples for the second time,

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. (vv. 31-32)

It’s safe to say they also hadn’t understood what Jesus had meant when he’d said that they would have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). No matter how often we hear and say that in God’s kingdom the way up is down, it never comes naturally.

Somehow in our lives Jesus leverages littleness and lowliness to achieve greatness. Here are some of his counterintuitive methods:

  • Invest in valuable relationships with lowly people—the poor or little children.
  • Take every God-given opportunity to serve others in ways that are “beneath you.” Do your best to be incognito. Getting public credit for lowly service drains out all the spiritual mojo.
  • Despite all your inclinations to the contrary, trust Jesus that the way to be first, to be the greatest in his kingdom, is to go low; to wash feet. When your calling requires the limelight or the pedestal, sneak away to find some dirty feet.
  • It isn’t the lowly service itself that’s most important. It’s what lowly service makes of us that’s the point. Scripture and prayer guide us, but the secret is the actual service in ways where Jesus gets the credit.
  • When you can’t find the staircase that leads down, ask Jesus for directions. He’ll be happy to show you the way.

Be ye glad!

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