How to measure greatness

Greatness can really be measured along three different axes: power, privilege and prestige. In secular society these three often go together and anyone with one or two of them is probably going to be found doing what they can to increase the other measures. However, Christians are called upon to invert their thinking and see these axes differently - the manner of doing this is outlined in Mark 10 verses 42-45.

The three dimensions of secular greatness are so entwined in Western culture that we first need to see that they are indeed separate. The first is power. Put simply this is the ability to get things done; or to make decisions. Privilege is different, it is most readily seen in the wealth someone has, or the luxury they live in. A royal pet for example may have great privilege but no power. Prestige is a measure of the honor or esteem in which someone is held.

We know that in the secular domain God has appointed some to be rulers over us[1] and that these men are granted power even to the taking of life[2]. We are told to obey those authorities[3] even if the decree is unjust[4]. We are even told that is secular office prestige will accompany power and that these rulers are to be accorded honor[5]. However, they are not granted the right to excessive privilege; which is what the Lord castigates them for in Mark 10:42.

Stepping from the secular into the realm of the Church the Lord explicitly states that the powerful amongst the Church are not to be privileged. The powerful are to be the ministers of the group. Churches naturally follow secular leading and attempt to grant the rich special rights. James 2 describes a scene where a wealthy man is given a fine seat in the church whilst the poor is treated as a servant. Even today the affluent that make a sizeable donation are far more likely to be greeted warmly by the pastor than the poor widow who attends faithfully but has little tangible to offer.

However the Lord I believe goes one step further and probably a step further from what we find acceptable today. Not only are the great to be without privilege they are also to be without prestige. The English translation of verse 44 rather waters down the force of the Greek. The Lord is not saying the foremost is to be a paid servant; but rather a bondservant. That is someone who has been paid for once and for all and is now owned. A closer rendering would really be slave.

The west is now so sanitized that it is almost impossible to imagine the force of these words upon the hearers of the New Testament. They would have been well aware of the plight of bondservants. Israelites were permitted to have bondservants from the people around them[6] and they could treat them as a chattel[7] and hand them from one generation to the next[8]. But this was still deemed so demeaning that it could not be done to an Isrealite[9] and if it was done someone had to redeem him[10]. Yet here the Lord states: if you wish to be first in the kingdom you need to have all of your prestige gone.

When we look at the road of Christian greatness and we see little privilege and total loss of prestige it can seem like a very narrow path we are asked to tread. Yet verse 45 reminds us that it is one the Lord took before us. The Lord had power, prestige and privilege yet he took upon him the form of a servant and humbled himself to death, even the death of a cross[11].

In John gospel[12] the Lord washes His disciples feet; and act of great degradation. Today the same action is sufficiently idiomatic that a preacher can do it and still retain prestige and most of his privilege. I don't think Christ is interested in false humility or outward shows of temporary depravation and humiliation. In any social network it is easy to see who has the power, who has the privilege and who has the prestige. I suggest that woe betide us if we have been foolish enough to invest all three in the same people.


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