Jesus knew exactly what they were arguing about but he asked the question anyway and you get a distinct impression that the disciples were embarrassed.
So why were the disciples arguing about who would be the greatest? Well, over the past few weeks we’ve seen that the Jewish people had many prophecies predicting that a Messiah would come. Someone who would save his people. They were expecting a strong and powerful warrior type Messiah who could come and set up his kingdom and get rid of the Romans who were the ruling power in Israel at the time. They believed that Jesus was this Messiah so they were arguing about which of them was going to be the most important in this new set up. The one who would have the most power and prestige. To some extent, it was an exercise in comparison.
Jesus had already told them that it wasn’t going to happen like that and that he had to be killed but was going to rise to life again but as I said in my last talk they couldn’t get their heads around this. It was so different from what they were expecting. I teach English to people whose first language isn’t English, and sometimes the people who find it hardest to speak correctly are the ones who have been here for years but never learned the language properly and have picked up bad habits in how they speak. It’s harder for them to change from the bad language habits they’ve picked up than it is for someone to learn from scratch. So I do get how difficult it was for the disciples to understand what Jesus was about.
I don’t know where everyone is from who is watching this but it’s not very British to be in a group of people and to be arguing about who among you is the greatest. In politics, we see a lot of arguing about how the other parties are worse, or in boxing, there might be a lot of talk about who is the greatest but in general, in everyday life, we don’t openly argue about this. But I don’t think they’re that different to us. We’re much more subtle than that and do most of our comparison and working out who is the greatest in our mind. I think when we meet people we tend to weigh up internally who is greater depending on the characteristics that are important to us for gaining love, acceptance, power, and prestige. Who has the better job? Who is higher up in the career ladder? Who has more money? Who is more beautiful or has a better body? Who has more followers on social media? Who has more power or influence? Who is the most active in fighting for social justice? Who has done the most charity work? Who is the most morally righteous.
Who are we greater than, better than, more important than? We compare ourselves to other people and either come our worse off and feel bad about ourselves, or we feel we are greater than them and become prideful.
So what’s Jesus' response to this? In those days when a teacher wanted to communicate something important, they sat down. So Jesus sits down and says to them, ‘Come on guys, quit talking about trying to be great. It’s not very spiritual to want to be great, is it?’
Actually, he doesn’t say that. That’s kind of what I’d maybe expect him to say. The next few verses say this: