What is greatness? Jesus’ uncomfortable teaching

24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27 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.

Peterson: Within minutes they were bickering over who of them would end up the greatest. But Jesus intervened: ‘Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant

Fred Craddock (Interpretation: Luke 257) likens the love of power and place to an “infectious disease among so many who lead Christ’s church”. How true that is: many a minister would love to ‘serve’ on synod or some other national council, let alone be invited to chair or to preside.

This desire for power and place is found in the very term that Luke uses here for “a dispute” (v24). The Greek word philoneikia appears only here in the NT and literally it means ‘love of victory, desire for glory’. That sums up what was going on that evening.

James Edwards (The Gospel According to Luke 653) comments: “There is perhaps no subject on which Scripture is less tolerant than on that of self-adulation. ‘The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and loft, for all that is exalted’ (Isaiah 2.12 NIV). Or as the GNB translates: ‘On that day the Lord Almighty will humble everyone who is powerful, everyone who is proud and conceited’.  Wow! I feel somewhat uncomfortable. Am I wrong to wear my Rotary Club Paul Harris badge for distinguished service?

Jesus interrupts the disciples’ vanity with a warning not to be like the world’s power-brokers – and in particular not to be like those who style themselves as ‘benefactors’ but are not. According to James Edwards, the term ‘benefactor’(euergeitai: i.e. ‘do-gooders’) is among the half-dozen most common epithets used of rulers and leaders occurring in monumental Greek inscriptions in the eastern half of the Roman Empire from the NT period to late antiquity. These ‘benefactors’ were “a widespread class of individuals of power, position, and means who celebrated themselves and were celebrated by others in public spaces”. They were the ‘do-gooding celebrities’ of the ancient world.

These people “are called” (kalountai – passive) benefactors – alternatively “call themselves” (kalountai – middle) benefactors.

“BUT NOT SO WITH YOU”  – literally, “not so you”: there is no verb present in the underlying Greek, with the result that it could be translated as an imperative (you are not to be like that) or an indicative (you are not like that). To quote Edwards again:

The rebuttal, in other words, identifies not simply a behaviour to be avoided, but an alternative way of life to be embraced.

Wow! Again I feel uncomfortable again. For on one of the internal walls of my old Cambridge college I am listed as a benefactor!

Jesus goes on to question the very concept of greatness.

From the world’s perspective, honoured guests at banquets are great – indeed, we have the custom of a top table at formal dinners

But in the Kingdom of God the world’s values are reversed: “I am among you as one who serves”.  Is it significant that here Luke does not use a noun (diakonos – deacon/servant) but a verb (diakoneo). Jesus does not assume the title of a servant, but rather plays the role of a servant.  Francois Bovon (Luke 3: 174) comments that Luke “knows that there are inactive and incompetent servants) and draws attention to Luke 12.45-46.

One final point:  John Nolland (Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 18:35-24:53, 1065) draws attention to the context in which this dispute took place:

In the first instance the text is about how the members of the Aposoltic band should relate to one another, and not about howthey as the great ones and leaders should relate to the Christian community they are to lead.

2 comments

  1. Yes, genuine humility is a huge challenge – I guess it is a lifetime’s work not to need/want the approval of others!

  2. Perhaps ‘work’ is inappropriate. Jesus is encouraging a refreshing and blessed attitude with no compulsion as in the work context. He emphasises a ‘natural’ and authentic way of living.

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