Two times in the Gospel of Luke the disciples are caught asking who will be great in the Kingdom. It’s not a bad question. In fact, asking questions about ambition is something I encourage younger people to be serious about for how we define greatness sets the course for our lives.
What does interest me most is the differences in the two times – three years apart – it is asked.
The first is in the early days of the ministry where the words tell us the disciples are having a debate among themselves. It’s not an argument. It’s almost a good-natured competition. They are going at each other about greatness and what it means. How you define greatness early on makes a difference…and you cannot know unless you ask. The word for greatness here is “mega” and it has two different meanings. First, it describes size. I doubt they were interested in which disciple would be the largest. Second, it means rank or importance relative to someone else. “Who am I compared to another and what external measure will define greatness for me?” If we desire largeness we can step on a scale every morning. If what we desire requires regular comparison to others, it is not so easy and far more dangerous.
The question is never settled easily or all at once, is it? In the essay “Dreams Are Dangerous; They Uncover Your Bones” by Diane Glancy, she speaks for many of us writing, “I am in love with ambition. I am burdened with ambition. I ask for ambition to come and bother me. I ask for ambition to leave. Ambition is a statement that defines me. I am unsettled by ambition. I am torn with ambition. I am certain about ambition. Ambition is a blessing. Ambition is a curse.”
We remember how Jesus responds. “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
I can imagine them all scrambling to be the least. Holding the door for the others. Serving them their food first. Taking no credit for anything. Avoiding any kind of recognition. Sometimes out of a genuine desire to be the least but, human nature being what it is, sometimes seeing achieving prominence in the end by appearing to be the least, the most humble and least ambitious than all the others. We know it when we see it, don’t we?
But that’s not the last time it comes up for the disciples. It’s still on their minds three years later toward the end of the ministry. What has happened in those three years? Adoring crowds have grown. Miracles have made them famous and sought after. They’ve beaten the experts at their own game. They have been associated with a genuine celebrity. And now it bubbles up again – but it’s a different question. This time they are not debating. They are having a heated argument. They are not asking about the nature of true greatness but the words here read “what is it to appear to be great?” They are asking, like others who have experienced some success, how to keep this going. It’s not a legitimate question any longer. It’s not the start-up question of the young but the question that often comes with success. It’s actually the worst question possible because all the answers are wrong. It’s one thing to have a genuine interest in the qualities of greatness and another to desire only the outward show but not the inward substance.
What does Jesus say to them this time?
Don’t become a Benefactor – one who starts out to do good but falls into the trap of lording over people and loving the flattery. It’s the irony of doing good, isn’t it, that we can move so quickly from being rightly motivated to becoming anxious about prestige, power and rank. We want to be esteemed and highly regarded.
But then he says we are to be “neoteros” or people who are perpetually new at something, always learning, always a novice. Nothing keeps us humble and vibrant like being a beginner.
Finally, we are to be “diakonos” or those who choose to serve with confidence and competence. We are not conscripted or coerced. We don’t serve reluctantly or look for recognition. We are to be people who know their strengths and where they fit.
I said to a group recently that I cannot define greatness for anyone else, but I can encourage everyone to consider these three questions:
What will help me avoid the lure of being a benefactor desiring prestige, power and rank comparing myself to others?
How will I stay a lifelong neoteros, a beginner and always new at something?
How will I grow as a diakonos and learn to use my strengths with confidence in places that are useful to others?
The challenge of ambition never goes away but it is in that tension that we learn for ourselves what greatness means.
This is an excerpt from Where The Light Divides