Introduction: What does it mean to achieve greatness?
One of the most fundamental questions in life is, “What is greatness?” Jesus answers this question in the gospels. He says that greatness lies in responsibility or service to others. Below are two versions a story where he answers the second question. One is from Luke, the other from Mark. They clarify one another, as they both omit from and add to the tale:
24 And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. 25 And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ 26 “But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. 27 “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
35 aJames and John, the two sons of Zebedee, *came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” 36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37 They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
39 They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. 40 “But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 Hearing this, the ten began to feel indignant with James and John. 42 Calling them to Himself, Jesus *said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 “But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Greatness is responsibility, not authority nor rights
In what transpired above, Jesus told his disciples that true greatness in his kingdom is defined by by service to the most people one could feasibly manage. In other words, Jesus’ kingdom [the people who follow him] should recognize and approve of those who take on great responsibility, not simply those who have great power. The example of this is that Jesus, the most powerful man, took on the most responsibility.
The disciples had apparently been thinking of greatness in terms of personal power and authority (James and John wanted the power to cast fire from heaven!), personal recognition (service and childhood are not positions of honor), and rights (the other disciples were upset).
This passage has isn’t about servant leadership. It’s not merely instruction for how to be a leader (as if serving were a substitute for vision, management, and command of people’s attention…Jesus still had all those). Instead, it is instruction for greatness. Christians should pursue greatness in terms of what will lead God to see them as great. According to Christ, we pursue this form of greatness by taking on responsibility.
Cain and Abel
Briefly, there is a connection between this story and the Cain and Abel story. God approves of Abel for improving his lot (God tells Cain that ‘if you make good of it, won’t you be uplifted’) and taking on responsibility for the animals God had made.
But Cain’s concern is not that he has responsibility for the sin in his life, but that he resents his brother and wants his rights. And so, the story goes, Cain murdered him. I think a great deal of the Bible is a narrative interplay between those two ways of being in the world and the stories above are no exception.
Finally: A Ransom for many?
We cannot imitate Christ in this. You and I cannot take on the sins of the world as he did. But…he explicitly uses this as an example worthy of imitation:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
How do we do that? I used to think, “There’s just no way.” That’s foolish. But then I thought of passages of the Bible like this:
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
So, I think there is a sense in which Christians are responsible to give their lives as a ransom for many or, as it’s put in various ways in the New Testament, to bear the sins of the world. What would this mean? I have a few suggestions:
- Take responsibility for the sins or mistakes of others, in a way that does not enable or harm them. Examples: one might pick up garbage on a walk, clean up after a child at a shop so that the owner does not have to, Job sacrificed for his children, etc.
- John said to pray for sinners, try it.
- James says that telling the truth to sinners might win them back and cover their sins (James 5:19-20).
- One might also bear their own load and resolve only to boast about personal growth so that they might not grow arrogant and thus be able to bear the loads of others (see Galatians 6:1-5).
- One might refuse to spread gossip about others and thereby guard their reputation.
- Start a morning/evening routine.
- Read aloud to/with your children, no matter how old they are.
- Clean your kitchen every day.
- Pick up garbage when you go for a walk.
- Call a friend and ask, “what can I do to help you right now?”
- Make your bed daily (I hate making the bed).
- Take ownership of your circumstances (your fault or not).
- Leave every where you go better than you found it.
- Plant a garden.
- Clean the parking lot at church.
These are subtle changes that will add responsibility, meaning, and greatness to your life.
 My temptation, which I’m learning to overcome, is to explain something in-depth about which gospel came first. I always wants to explain every chain of reasoning that leads to the three main conclusions I’m making below. Instead, I’m going to state them, explain what they mean, and let you decide if they’re justified. I fear not justifying everything I say to every possible audience, which is paralyzing. I do this in conversation and speeches. In fact, I every academic paper I start gets bogged down in hunting down dozens of citations. It’s pitiful, and here I go again!
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Lk 22:24–27.
 Mk 10:35–45.
 Col 1:24.