January 28, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Luke 9:46-48 (NRSV)
An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
Do you want to be great? If so, Jesus would urge you not to seek your own greatness, but rather choose the way of humility, service, and dependence on God. Value those in this world who are considered the “least.” Don’t be preoccupied by your own accomplishments. Rather, focus on serving others, knowing that as you do, you are serving Jesus.
Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.
As I read this story from Luke I am transported back to my childhood. When I was in elementary school, my friends and I were obsessed with being the greatest. We didn’t care about being the best in the classroom, mind you. It was all about our awesomeness on the playground. We wanted to be the greatest in athletic feats on asphalt. We argued all the time about who was the greatest in certain sports. In fact, we made lists of our classmates, specifying their particular ranking in the events we valued. I can still remember, for example, that Chester Feenstra was the tops at tetherball. But Ivan Lescano was the king, because he was #1 in both running and kicking. Rob Fawcett came in a close second to Ivan in both categories. Ivan and Rob weren’t big, but they were both super strong and quick. (For the record, I sometimes made a list or two, but was never #1 at anything.)
From my childhood experience, there’s part of me that understands why the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest in Luke 9:46. I get the competitive drive they’re showing. But I’m also embarrassed for the disciples. For one thing, they were not elementary-aged boys, but grown men. They might still have wanted to be the greatest, but you’d think they’d have learned not to admit it so openly. Plus, they were arguing about their personal greatness right at the time when Jesus had begun talking about his coming suffering and death. In fact, right before the disciples were having their “I’m the greatest” argument, Jesus had predicted his betrayal. That’s an awkward juxtaposition if ever there were one.
Jesus did not, however, rebuke the disciples for their egotistical inappropriateness. Rather, he brought a “little child” to his side and said, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48). In Jesus’s day, as in ours, if you wanted to be great you didn’t focus your attention on children. Children, after all, were humble, small, unaccomplished, lacking power and reputation. They were the “least” in their culture. So, by saying that one who welcomes a child welcomes him, Jesus was calling his disciples to a radically different value system.
Then Jesus added, “for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48). The kingdom of God turns everything upside down. It calls us to see differently, to evaluate differently, to live differently. What matters in God’s kingdom isn’t human accomplishment and grandeur, but humility and dependence on God. Those who are truly great acknowledge their weakness and need for God. They seek to lift up others, not themselves. They would not even be interested in arguing for their own greatness, though they might acknowledge the greatness of others. By the way, our translation misses something notable in this verse. Though the disciples were arguing about which of them was the “greatest” (meizon in Greek), Jesus actually said that the least is “great” (megas in Greek) not “the greatest.” Greatness is something we share in God’s kingdom.
So, how can you and I be great in the way of Jesus? We can’t become actual children again. And Jesus doesn’t mean we should act in a childish manner. Nor is he expecting us to quit our jobs and stop being responsible for family and friends. Rather, you and I can stop fighting to be seen as the greatest. We can resist the urge to promote ourselves. We can choose a different way, the way of humility, servanthood, and dependence upon God. If we are honored, we won’t let it puff us up. Instead, in our hearts and in our actions we will pass the honor on to others, and most of all, to God.
Can we do this if we’re persons of authority? What if we’re supposed to lead others? How can we be the least as leaders? An answer comes from Jim Collins in his groundbreaking book, Good to Great. Collins shows that the greatest companies are led by what he calls “Level 5 Leaders.” These leaders are, according to Collins, “a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.” Concerning themselves they are modest and humble. But concerning the organization they lead and its mission that are willful and fearless. They exercise their “leastness” in service to others, seeking the greatness of their colleagues and their organization rather than their own greatness.
Have you ever wanted to be great in some way? Even the greatest? What was this about? Why did you feel this way?
How do you respond to today’s story from Luke? Can you relate at all to the disciples?
How does the saying of Jesus strike you? How might you welcome Jesus?
What might it mean for you to be the “least” in the various contexts of your life?
After considering it prayerfully, choose to serve someone in your life who is not a person of power or status. Show tangible care to someone who might be considered “the least” in your world.
Lord Jesus, I’m thankful today for this realistic portrayal of the disciples. I’m so glad Luke and the other gospel writers didn’t “clean things up.” We can learn so much from the disciples, from their exemplary faith (at times) and their exemplary foolishness (at other times).
Help me, Lord, to think differently about the people in my world. In particular, may I learn to welcome children and others of low status. May I give myself away in service to “the least” in my culture, organization, neighborhood, and church.
Set me free from being preoccupied with my own greatness. May I choose instead to seek your greatness, to lift up those around me, to walk genuinely on the path of humility. May I always remember, Lord, how much I depend on you.
All praise and honor be to you! Amen.
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Humble Service (Luke 9:46-50, 14:7-11, 22:24-30)
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.