We do like to know where we stand in life, don't we? We are conditioned to think of work as being an environment where there are different levels of management, with the company chairman sitting aloof at the top of a large pyramid and little old us lurking somewhere within the rest of that sometimes unwieldy structure.
We might have people reporting directly to us, and in turn we report to a senior manager. But we need to know where we stand in the grand order of things, and that knowledge gives us a feeling of security.
Of course that feeling of security can soon go flying out of the window when along comes Mr Ambitious who fancies your job and starts back-stabbing, or those below you in the pecking order start being promoted over your head.
Instinctively, almost as if it's born into us, as if it's in our genes, we build a hierarchy and try to slot people, including ourselves, into it. And if we think we've been overlooked then we feel rejected.
But then, that's life isn't it?
Jesus' disciples were no different to us, and indeed why should they be as they were every bit as human as we are, and evidently subject to exactly the same in-built fascination with management structures.
You see, Jesus had been talking to them about a Kingdom, and a rather special one at that, the Kingdom of God. Naturally enough, his disciples looked at one another and thought "Mmm, there's twelve of us here. I wonder how Jesus is going to share out the jobs when the time comes.?"
"Who's going to get the top slot? I quite fancy Chancellor of the exchequer, and so-and-so would make a good Foreign Secretary. I mean, it would be nice to know if Jesus has actually made his mind up. If not, then perhaps there's still time to try and impress, canvas for votes or draw up a CV."
Jesus had told them repeatedly about what awaited him in Jerusalem, which incidentally was where they were headed when this discussion took place, and yet here they were, still apparently not quite comprehending what was going on around them, still thinking of the Kingdom that Jesus talked about in earthly terms - with themselves as his chief ministers of state.
In hindsight, after Jesus' death, what must they have thought of themselves - arguing about who would be the greatest as Jesus walked steadfastly towards the cross? It doesn't bear thinking about.
But notice something very important here, and I must confess that it had slipped past my eyes unnoticed upon first reading. When Jesus stopped and asked his disciples what they were arguing about, what did they say?
"Oh, we were just wondering if you'd got the management structure worked out, Jesus!"
"You know when this Kingdom of your is established, Jesus well, I was wondering. I'm rather good with figures "
No, they were too embarrassed to even admit what they had been arguing about. Mark tells us that "They would not answer him "
It was the silence of shame. They had no defence.
Isn't it strange how something which seems so important at the time acquires its true status when set in the eyes of Jesus. As long as they thought Jesus wasn't listening, the argument about who was greatest and least seemed perfectly reasonable. But when that same argument met with the presence of Jesus, suddenly it was seen for what it really was .. worthless.
And this great truth, if carried into the minutiae of our daily lives is actually quite a frightening thought - if we could take everything and set it in the sight of Jesus. It could make a most amazing difference to this world of ours.
Think about it for a moment.
If before everything we did, we asked "Could I go on doing this if Jesus was watching me?"; or if before everything we said, we asked, "Could I go on talking like this if Jesus was listening to me?" would it affect our daily lives as they are at this moment in time?
Here's your moment to think about it
Of course, they're trick questions aren't they? - but you knew that anyway, didn't you?
They're trick questions of course because the plain fact about our faith is that there is no "IF" about it. Just as Jesus knew what the disciples were talking about despite their best endeavours to keep it from him, so all deeds are done and all words spoken in his presence.
And that is a scary thought!
Jesus took his disciples to task, as well he might, because this was such an important point which they had so far failed to grasp. He sat down and called them to him. Jesus became the Rabbi, the teacher and sat down as a Rabbi might sit down to teach his pupils. This was a deliberate act on Jesus' part. He was determined that they would at last start to understand what it was all about.
He told them simply that if they sought for greatness in the kingdom of heaven then they would find it by being not first, but last; not by being masters but by being servants of all.
This wasn't Jesus saying that ambition in itself was wrong, but that in the Kingdom of God the rules are turned upside down and inside out. For ambition to rule he substitutes ambition to serve. For ambition to have things done for us he substitutes the ambition to do things for others.
And now for a quick quiz!
Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
Name the last five US Open winners.
Name the last five winners of the Miss Universe contest.
Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer prize.
Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.
Name the last decade's worth of FA Cup winners.
How did you do?
The point is, none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These
are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But
the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten.
Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.
Here's another quiz. See how you do on this one:
List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.
Name half a dozen authors whose life stories have inspired you.
The people who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most power, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones that care, ones that share, ones that love and ones that serve.
You see, Jesus' notion of greatness is not pie in the sky, it's not impossibly idealistic and unreasonable - it actually makes a lot of sense if you stop to think about it.
The really great men and women, the ones who have made a really great contribution to life, are those who have said to themselves, not "How can I use the state and society to further my own personal ambitions?" but rather those who have said "How can I use my personal gifts and talents to serve the state?"
William Barclay, in his commentary on this passage quotes Stanley Baldwin, who once made a rather noble tribute to Lord Curzon when he died.
In it he said, "I want, before I sit down, to say one or two things that no one but I can say. A Prime Minister sees human nature bared to the bone, and it was my chance to see him twice when he suffered great disappointment - the time when I was preferred to him as Prime Minister, and the time when I had to tell him that he could render greater service to the country as chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence than in the Foreign Office. Each of these occasions was a profound and bitter disappointment to him, but never for one moment did he show by word, look, or innuendo, or by any reference to the subject afterwards, that he was dissatisfied. He bore no grudge, and he pursued no other course than the one I expected of him, of doing his duty where it was decided he could best render service."
The Greeks had a story of a Spartan called Paedaretos. 300 men were to be chosen to govern Sparta and Paedaretos was a candidate. When the list of the successful was announced, his name was not on it. "I'm sorry," said one of his friends, "that you were not elected. The people ought to have known what a wise officer of state you would have made."
"I am glad," said Paedaretos, "that in Sparta there are 300 men better than I am."
Here was a man who became a legend because he was prepared to give others the first place and to bear no one ill will.
It's rather mind-blowing to think what could be achieved by people living not for what they can get out of life, but for what they can contribute to life. Somehow we still live by the legacy of the Thatcherite eighties, where the theme tune seemed to be grab, grab, grab - where self-advancement and accumulation of wealth and possessions was everything.
What a difference it would make if the ambition of politicians and those in positions of leadership was to serve others and not their own private agendas and ambitions. The same of course is also true of those who hold office within the Church, sad to say.
Is this too idealistic?
Jesus didn't think so. He was so concerned that his disciples fully understood, that he sat them down and taught them the fundamentals of life in the Kingdom.
Is it unrealistic in today's world?
Are we saying that the truth that is in the bible is no longer relevant? I think not.
It's not unrealistic because it could start with us. We have the advantage of knowing about the Kingdom of God. We might be as hazy as the disciples about the full implications of the Kingdom in our lives, but Jesus can still sit us down and teach us.
The world does not know, because the world has been brainwashed into believing that power and influence are everything.
We can't expect to go to work this coming week and tell our bosses that all those books about management science have got it all wrong. That here in the pages of the bible is the perfect management course, summed up in just 17 words.
Think how much could be saved in expenses and time lost through attending management courses.
But what we can do is take the principles that we hear from God's word
and apply them in our own personal circumstances.
If before everything we did, we asked "Could I go on doing this if Jesus was watching me?"; or if before everything we said, we asked, "Could I go on talking like this if Jesus was listening to me?"
If our ambition was not to rule but to serve, not to take but to give would people notice? I think they might very well notice. And you never know, it might just catch on.
"Be imitators of God" Paul told the Ephesians, who seemed to be losing the plot rather, picking up the bad habits of the world and drifting away from God.
Look at what's happening to you as a church, once you start living like the world lives - to its values, morals and ethics. There's division, bitterness, hatred and all those traits which are the exact opposite of the life in the Kingdom. Don't base your lifestyle on the current worldly fashion.
Look to Jesus, his life and his words, his selfless giving on the cross says Paul. There's our example, our role model. Look to Jesus. Centre our lives on Jesus.
People will notice.
To quote, or misquote maybe, the Stereophonics "It only takes one match, to burn a thousand trees"
The Kingdom of God is not only in eternity, it starts here and now, in each one of us who call ourselves Christians and have accepted Jesus as Saviour. Membership is not based on wealth, power and ambition, but rather on humility and love.