What constitutes greatness? In this week’s gospel we see a study in contrasts that helps us understand. In Mark 10 Jesus teaches the disciples and the church in simple terms. Two millennia later we still have a long way to go to get it into our hearts.
Herod Antipas wanted to be known as a king, but was officially only a tetrarch of two patches of territory: Galilee and Perea. Mark goes to lengths to show that neither he nor Pilate not the Jewish authorities exercised any true greatness. They were intimidated by the mercurial currents of political pressure. They were victims of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called, in his work of the same name, “the crowd as untruth.”
Set side by side the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist and these key political leaders bring into sharp relief the difference between true and false and destructive greatness. Herod Antipas only appears to have power. In fact he is part of a vast dysfunctional family and caught in the grip of dizzying political intrigue. He can afford to throw a vast party to impress potential allies, but when he goes a single step too far to impress with a promise to Salome. So, the horrifying image of the head of a man on a platter is, on the surface, a show of brute force. But it signifies even more starkly the primal fears that move this so-called king.
A few chapters later two disciples of Jesus, who seem to have special place already–James and John, Sons of Zebedee–ask Jesus to do their bidding and to grant them positions of power when Jesus enters into his glory. Jesus replies that these two disciples do not understand that the necessary prelude to glory is drinking from a cup and being baptized. He is speaking, of course, in his self-sacrificial death.
Then Jesus adds this:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The words translated “lord it over” and “tyrannize” are rarely used words in Greek, but they do seem to strongly indicate brute force. But it is crystal clear what the opposite is–the ideal of Jesus and of his church: servanthood, and even an absolute form of servanthood called slavery to all others.
These qualities of greatness John the Baptist showed by speaking truth to power at the cost of his life, and Jesus shows and turns into the Sacraments by drinking of the cup and being baptized into the font of salvivic death.
Our current President has championed a vision of greatness he has summed up in the words “America first.” His method and message has consistently focused on claiming greatness for all his words and deeds. Do we wait in vain for him to demonstrate the true greatness that lives in self sacrifice and servanthood? To whom do we look for such authentic greatness?