Authentic Greatness

Richard Gentry Thompson

“A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:24-30-NIV)

Disputes arise, no surprise. Even on the last supper’s sacred ground, the twelve continue to chew on the same bone of contention-who is considered the greatest.  Perhaps James and John, the sons of thunder, might say, “We are the real leaders, ready to call down lightning strikes on the disobedient.” Maybe they nominate Philip because he always brings someone to Jesus. Matthew is certainly a favorite because, with his wealthy background and could he throw a party! And, then, of course, Peter is an obvious choice. They argue over who is considered to be the greatest.

It is noteworthy that Jesus does not rebuke the desire for greatness. He does not say, “OK, whoever aspires to be great is arrogant, out of the room!” He cautions against the wrong path. Jesus knows when we think of greatness we think of kings and benefactors. We make lists of the wealthy and powerful. We turn quickly toward political power or making money. Jesus says, “but you are not to be like that.” He shows us a path to greatness that we never would find by ourselves. “The greatest among you should be like the youngest and the one who rules like the one who serves.” Servant leadership is in all over leadership literature.  But we overlook this direction.

The greatest among you should be like the youngest

What does this mean that the greatest among you should be like the youngest?  How can being like the youngest be the narrow road to greatness. To unveil this mystery, let’s look at the only story we have of our Lord himself when he is youngest person in a place where great people of his day gather.

Every year, Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions (Luke 2:41-46).

Authentic greatness is being like the youngest by listening

This is an amazing scene. The Son of God sits down with the most significant people of his day. The Creator converses with the people who will one day shout, “Crucify Him!” The Word of God does not lecture; he listens.  Jesus shows us that being like the youngest means listening, and listening leads to greatness.

How would it have gone over if this twelve-year-old would walk into the temple and start teaching the teachers?  I imagine about as effective as I was when I tried to preach to our teenage boys. Our sons are now walking with the Lord, and our communication is now great, but it was hard in high school. I  constantly preached and tried to prove my points because I knew what I did in high school.  The more I turned up the teaching, the more they tuned me out.

God graciously gave us a daughter as our youngest. I meditated on this passage, and I determined not just to pound my points but to lead by listening. I drove her to school throughout junior high and into high school until she learned to drive. I majored in listening. She shared with me what was going on in school, about her friends, her fears, and her dreams of the future. One day the test came for me.

She agreed to go to homecoming events with a group of girlfriends. Then, this real stud invited her to go with him. She described her feelings for this guy. How great he was and how the girls really liked him. Fear came over me. I felt like what Radio Pastor Chuck Swindoll described when he gave his daughter away in marriage, and he felt like he was giving his Stradivarius violin to a 500-lb. gorilla. But I just listened. Tiffany prayed. She trusted God for wisdom. The next day, she affirmed the young man and invited him to join her friends’ group for the homecoming activities.  he came home radiant, knowing that God led her. (The next year, the same young man invited her to the homecoming, and she agreed to go.) I’ll never forget that day I learned as a Dad that my children have room to listen to their heavenly Father and seek His wisdom when I listen first.

– My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…(James 1:19).

– Let the wise listen and add to their understanding…(Proverbs 1:5).

– He who answers before listening-that is his folly and his shame (Proverbs 18:13).

Leading by listening requires no position. It requires no power. It requires no money. It is something the youngest child can do. But listening does have one difficult prerequisite. As someone has said, “what the heart loves, the ears hear.” I love sports, and I find it easy to listen to sports on the radio. If we love the Lord, we listen to his word. If we love our family, we listen. If we love those we lead, we listen.

Authentic greatness is being like the youngest by listening and asking good questions

“They…found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”

Rudyard Kipling wrote, “I keep six honest serving-men; they taught me all I knew. Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.” Jesus leads by asking appropriate, authentic, penetrating questions. H.H. Horne, in his book, Jesus the Master Teacher (1920), notes that in the four gospels, Jesus asks over 100 different questions.

What: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say (Luke 9:46)?
Where: John’s baptism-where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men (Matt. 21:25)?
Who: Who do the crowds say I am?  (Luke 9:18)  Who do you say that I am?

As W.P. Merrill observes:  His aim, as the Great Teacher of men was, and ever is, not to relieve the reason and conscience of mankind, not to lighten the burden of thought and study, but rather to increase that burden, to make men more conscientious, more eager, more active in mind and moral sense.  That is to say, he came not to answer questions; but to ask them, not to settle men’s souls, but to provoke them, not to save men from their problems, but to save them from their indifference…(Discipleship Journal: 1981: 5, 42).

A student at school who listens and asks the right questions becomes a great student.  A person at a party who asks an apt question can guide the conversation. Influential leaders lead team meetings by asking challenging questions. The path to greatness involves listening and asking appropriate, timely questions.

These insights help me process the mysterious book of Job. Job 1 says Job was the greatest man of the East. Then, without knowing that Satan is behind it all, he lost his possessions, children, and health. His heart bleeds. He gives speech after speech sharing his pain, arguing with his friends, and looking for God. He is the classic person who processes by talking and talking.  You ever noticed in a marriage that one of the people is a verbal processor and one is an internal processor.)  Job is so verbal. He defends himself against the attack of an unseen enemy. He struggles to understand the tragedy that seizes him, unaware. Finally, at the end, when his friends finally finish with their foolishness, the Lord answers Job out of the storm. What does God do? How does God Almighty lead Job into spiritual wisdom and understanding?  He asks him over 80 questions.

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

I wondered where God was during all the tragedies of Job’s life.  Now I believe that the Lord loves Job, so he listens to his heart for 37 chapters.  Then, at the right time,  God asks him questions to lead him into deeper wisdom and humility.

Authentic greatness is being like the youngest with laughter and joy

The children know how to have fun. As Norman Shawchuck, one of my Doctor of Ministry professors, observes: “Many religious leaders tend to take themselves far too seriously.  They are devastated by the slightest criticism and are jealous of their position in the congregation.  Children take their play seriously, but not themselves.  (Shawchuck, Leading the Congregation, 30).

The youngest children are full of laughter and joy. Elton Trueblood wrote a book, The Humor of Christ.  One of his examples is when his four-year-old son laughed and laughed when Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Why do you try and take a speck of sawdust out of someone else’s eye when you have a log in your own.” It is a funny picture.

I remember our family devotions in The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes by Ken Taylor and the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. The Old King James translation gave his sister Martha the reaction to the idea of opening the tomb-He stinketh! Our little kids would roar in laugher, He stinketh! He stinketh!  Children know how to laugh. In fact, God is the God of laughter. God’s name to Abraham’s only son with Sarah is Isaac, and Isaac is the Hebrew word, laughter! We follow the God of Abraham, Laughter, and Jacob.  At the appropriate time, part of greatness is continuing to laugh at life and be full of joy from the Holy Spirit.

Back to Luke 2, as the parents of Jesus discover he is missing, they rush back to Jerusalem. They frantically look for him for three days. If you have ever lost a child in a mall, you know how they felt. Can you imagine their emotions? They lost the son of God!  They search among their friends, the areas where kids play, and in terror, they search the dark side of the city. Then, they finally find him in the temple sitting among the greatest people of their day.

Mary is upset. When she speaks to her son, can you imagine her tone: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your Father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

Jesus loves his mother. Our Lord listens to his mother with his same patience, kindness, and joy that he always experiences because he has the Spirit without measure. And how does this greatest of all men answer?  He asks her two timely questions. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Jesus listens and asks great questions and never loses his continual joy.

“But they did not understand what he was saying to them” (Luke 2:50).  When we are misunderstood, when we are falsely accused, when we upset the people closest to us, let’s follow his example not to lose our love, kindness, patience, and joy.

Joy to the world, the king of kings has come as a little child. As Martin Luther sees, “The Gospel is nothing less than laughter and joy.” The greatest among you should be like the youngest…listening, asking good questions, and full of laughter and joy!

In conclusion, consider G.K. Chesterton’s insight at the end of Orthodoxy.

And as I close this chaotic volume, I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure, which fills the Gospels, towers…above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed his tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of his native city. Yet He concealed something.  Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of hell.  Yet He restrained something…there was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth, and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth. (Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ, 30-31)