They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” -Mark 9:33-37
When Jesus left his childhood home of Nazareth, Capernaum became his home base. The Apostle Peter owned a home there where Jesus was always welcome. In our text, “the house” doubtless refers to Peter’s home.
Earlier in chapter nine, Jesus and the Apostles had been traveling through the region of Galilee. Jesus was Transfigured on an unnamed, high mountain. Jesus performed miracles and taught the people. Significantly, we are told by Mark that Jesus for the second time explained to his disciples, “’The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’ 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”
It was in this context that the disciples were arguing on the road to Capernaum. They “kept quiet” and didn’t want to talk about it when Jesus asked about it. They knew they were wrong, and they were embarrassed that Jesus overheard them. They had been arguing about who was the greatest.
Now they weren’t arguing about who was the greatest swimmer, or fisherman, or cook, or anything like that. They were arguing who was greatest among the Apostles. Who was the greatest speaker? Who was the most charismatic? Who was the greatest teacher? Who was the greatest evangelist? Who would become Jesus’ right-hand man in the kingdom? It is amazing that these men could listen to Jesus explain that he was soon to be arrested, put to death, and buried, and then turn around and begin arguing about who was the greatest!
Jesus took a young child in his arms and told the disciples “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Little children in that culture were rather ignored. People were busy. Fathers worked outside the home morning tonight. Mothers washed clothes by hand, went out to the city well to carry the day’s supply of water home. Mothers spent the day preparing food from scratch, scrubbing floors, taking care of the house, and caring for the babies. The little ones who could fend for themselves were left to do so. A little toddler issues no commands. He has no authority over anyone. From his life experience he does not think he is great. He does what mother and father tell him to do.
The disciples would learn that Jesus was the ultimate model of greatness through service. In God’s estimation, greatness consists of self-sacrificial service. Jesus lived a life serving other people, he died as the suffering servant of all mankind, he arose as the Savior and Lord of all the human race.
Later, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus would demonstrate greatness by washing the disciples’ feet. “What you have seen me do, do for one another.” In other words, no service toward another person is too menial, too servile, too lowly, too humiliating for a disciple of Christ. Such service is true greatness (John 13:17).
Our culture constantly stresses greatness. Which team is number one? Which athlete is the best? Who is the most beautiful? What is the top-rated product? It is an ugly, depressing competition in the muck and mire. What the world needs is more who strive for Jesus’ kind of greatness. Greatness by service. All of us can help when we stop lauding those who are number one in their sport, or their craft, or their personal achievement, or their business, and praise instead those who clean and bathe the COVID-19 patients, who scrub and clean the hospital hallways, who change baby’s dirty diapers, who nurse and care for the daily needs of the elderly in the nursing homes.
Following Jesus means taking up the cross, denying self, daily, and following him (Luke 9:23). Following Jesus means putting on the towel and washing another’s feet. Following Jesus means following him in sacrifice for others. That is true greatness.