The Gospel reading set for today is Mark 9:30-37.
In my English translation, we read that Jesus’ disciples were arguing about who, among them, was greatest. But the Greek word rendered as an argument is dialogizomai, from which we get our English word ‘dialogue’. It means, I reason (with), debate (with), consider. They are having a considered debate as to who is greatest.
The word translated ‘greatest’ carries a range of meaning, including who is senior by age, or what is widest in scope. As someone who regularly runs with people younger than myself, or whose girth is considerably more slender than mine, I can pride myself in being the greatest runner in the pack, even if I will never be the fastest. Seriously though, a considered debate on greatness depends on the metrics we measure, and whether or not we can agree on those metrics.
Jesus does not dismiss their argument, so much as enter-into their debating (having, apparently, been kept out of it up till now: no-one wants the sure favourite in the room when you are debating who is greatest). And his contribution for their consideration is that whoever wants to be first must be last of all. Whoever would be the protos—the first in a procession, enabling others to follow—must be the eschatos—the end of all things, its summing up to completion.
The one possessing the greatest width is the one who is the Alpha and the Omega (first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), the Beginning and the End—to employ a title by which the Church would come to honour Jesus.
In the context of the preceding verses, in which Jesus is attempting to prepare his disciples for what is to come, that Jesus will be killed and, three days later, rise again, the protos and eschatos is the one who will lead the way passing from death to life, in whom none who follow shall be lost.
Jesus, the pack leader who both leads the pack out, and regularly regroups to keep those running at the back from falling away.
Greatness is no bad thing to aspire to, nor something to be embarrassed about. But if you are going to go down as one of the greats, be known as great for what you did for others, for how you inspired and empowered them, folding them into something greater than the sum of all our parts.
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