A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
The irony of this conversation is significant. Jesus is about to go to the cross and the disciples are arguing about which of them is the greatest.
The irony of this conversation is also intentional.
In Mark – most likely the source of this scene for both Luke and Matthew – Jesus has this conversation with his disciples as they make their way toward Jerusalem. It follows, in fact, one of his predictions of his death. Matthew follows suit. But Luke moves this scene and conversation so that it falls immediately after Jesus shares the Passover meal with his disciples.
Decisions like this often provide clues to the heart of the author’s concern. In this case, Luke’s adaptation of this scene highlights the nature and import of the cross. Jesus’ passion, according to Luke, isn’t the random tragedy of a good man who died too young, or even the sad tale of one more innocent unjustly sentenced by a corrupt institution. Rather, it is an intentional and deliberate act of the Son of God who through his life and death set an example for his followers.
True greatness, Jesus says, looks like this. It finds satisfaction in service. It delights in working for the good of others. Indeed, greatness finds expression chiefly in willing and working toward the well being of those around you. In this way, true greatness is akin to love, putting the needs of others up front.
Service offered out of love, from this point of view, isn’t just one of many elements of the Christian life; it constitutes it. Jesus is about to go to the cross for his disciples and for us and, at least in Luke’s Gospel, part of the reason is to teach us the nature of true greatness: it is being willing to serve those around them. Period.
Prayer: Dear God, remind us that greatness rests in service and that leadership resides in care and compassion, for you came not to serve but to be served and to set for us an example of a life lived in and from love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.