Once upon a time, some foreign philanthropists went about visiting some secondary schools in various parts of Africa. Their aim was to get the best brains from some of the schools and to assist them gain scholarships for studies abroad. Consequent upon this, some schools were randomly selected by ballot from various regions of the continent.
At one of the secondary schools chosen, a teacher who was in-charge of the topmost class in the school, happened to have a set of male identical twins in that same class. This class was selected by the school authorities as the only class that would be inspected by the visiting philanthropists. The teacher in question took personal interest in the inspection and nursed the desire to have her twins selected by the people coming for the inspection.
She made adequate preparations and had her twins dressed up in new school uniforms. To make her plan more solid, she made them sit at the front seats by the entrance to the classroom. She moved a poor boy called Godwin; an orphan by identity, from the front seat and gave him a sit at the back of the class; away from the sight of the coming inspectors: “after all he is an orphan and does not deserve the notice of the White folks!” She may have thought.
On the day of the inspection, an elegant white woman entered the class and was unanimously and respectfully greeted by the class with a resounding and elating “Good morning Ma!” She responded and asked them how they were doing and they answered by asserting the conventional “We are very fine thank you!” She asked them to keep standing and moved down to the back of the class. Immediately she asked the class to make a “round-about-turn” and face her. By so doing those who were at the usual front seats became back benchers while the back benchers assumed the front seats. The most outstanding thing that happened was that our poor Godwin was by this new arrangement facing the woman directly. Incidentally also the woman took him up on some questions from various subjects and he gave accurate and precise answers to all the questions with amazing boldness. The inspector was greatly impressed and after commending the teacher for grooming such a wonderful class, she announced immediately that Peter would be among those to be given scholarship to study abroad! The teacher was disappointed as her beautifully dressed twins where not noticed.
There seems to be a basic desire in each and every one of us to be the first, to be the best, to be the most outstanding and to lead the parade. This is was what Martin Luther King Jnr. (adapting from Wallace Hamilton) in his sermon on 4th February 1968 called “Drum Major instinct”; the desire to be first, the desire to be noticed. Even the cry of a baby is a public announcement for attention. Like the mother of the twins she wanted the first positions for her children.
The desire for greatness seems to characterize our thinking and acting as human beings. It is not all too different that we rate people in their order of performances as: 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. During our primary, secondary and even tertiary school days there was always the contest of who comes first in the class; who climbs the stage, who receives award!
The apostles were not less human. In the Gospel Reading today (Mark 9:30-37) we are presented with an episode involving the apostles in what appears to be a workshop on “greatness and being first”. I believe that all of them contributed in the argument. I can imagine Peter saying: “I am the greatest; the master just gave me the keys after professing him to be the Christ!” (Matt. 16:17-19). Others may have also reminded him that after all said and done the Lord told him: “get behind me Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). I can imagine John claiming to be the greatest and the first while leveraging on being the closest to the Lord (John 13:23). I can imagine Judas arguing from the financial stance as the one holding the purse of the group (John 12:6; 13:29).
I can also imagine Andrew claiming to be the greatest and the first on account of his public relation (PR) potentials which included but not restricted to introducing Simon Peter to the Lord, pointing out the boy with five loaves of bread and two fish and bringing some Greeks to see Jesus (John 1:42; 6:8-9;12:20-22). I can imagine Matthew the former tax collector claiming to be the greatest and the first based on his learning and wealth that he left and followed Jesus (Matt. 9:9). I can imagine Nathaniel reminding all that he should be considered the greatest and the first because the Lord already proclaimed him to be a man without guile (John 1:47-48). I can imagine James and John nursing the position of greatness as they later expressed it in the 10th chapter of the gospel of Mark. I can finally imagine Thomas casting doubts on all the sides they had taken.
When our Lord Jesus Christ got to know about their contention, he expressed his dismay and went further to give them the secret of being great, the hidden secret of gaining the first position. His formulation for greatness was amazingly below their imagination. For him, anyone who desires to be first must first of all make himself (herself) last by being the servant of others.
This formular that our Lord presented was what they least anticipated hearing and of course in our day and age most of us will not like to take it. Most of us are always desirous of being the only voice that should be heard, the only idea that should be adopted, the only person that is important. We notice this playing out especially among political leaders. The bane of most nations in the world including small communities is leadership without service. Jesus Christ was not telling them sometime strange because that was the route he went as St. Paul would attest in Phil. 2:6-11.
The secret of greatness is the way of humility; it has to do with bending low. St. James said that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). In the Gospel of Luke (14:11) our Lord made it clear that those exalts themselves will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.. In his letter to the Philippians (2:3) St. Paul said: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”. The Psalmist (25:9) said: “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way”.
Humility that breeds and bring greatness is not an ideology but a practical fact. For instance if someone wishes to pass an examination the individual is expected to read and to read one needs to bend down the head .To reach at something far above your head, you need to bend low before jumping up; in fact the lower you bend the higher you will jump. The word humility comes from the Latin humus which means soil. Hence to be humble is to bring oneself down to the level of the soil.
There is need for us to do some deflating in our lives to enable us pass through into greatness. There is need for us to rely on God because he is the one that sets the platform of greatness. The stance of St. James today is also relevant (James 3:16-4:3). Among other things the apostle pointed out that we are often filled with the desire to be great and first to the extent that we don’t mind doing evil things like killing to achieve our selfish motives. This plays out very well in political positions as well as in the acquisition of material wealth. Some people even vow to go to any length whatsoever provided they get what they want.
Do you want to be great? Do you want to take the first position? The best way and manner is to start small, to bend low; to stoop to conquer. Yes! To knell is to win. There is no need to scramble over greatness or first position. There is a place God has reserved for you in life; locate it and maintain it. Do not take a position that does not belong to you. Do not operate with a borrowed robe. David killed Goliath not with the armoury of Saul but with his humble sling a small stone. Your greatness will come tomorrow if you start today by being humble.
We conclude by recalling the instruction of St. James today in the Second Reading and relating it to the process of being great. The apostle began by establishing that jealousy and selfishness bring about disorder and every vile practice. A critical examination of the aforementioned vices shows that they are intimately linked with pride and opposed to humility which takes us to greatness. Practically applied, we cannot achieve greatness by being jealous and determining to pull others down.
Have a blissful Sunday and a wonderful week ahead.