Jesus tells his disciples about his coming suffering and death for a second time, and next thing you know, they are having a debate about which one of them is the greatest. That seems kind of astonishing. However, having spent 6 years in the seminary with about 200 other guys, I can attest that guys can be competitive, about even the most insignificant, unimportant things. Even when we’re supposed to be trying to become more humble. And, having five sisters, I also know that women can be a little competitive too.
We can of course only imagine what the disciples’ conversation sounded like: “I’m the greatest!” “No, I’m the greatest!” “No, I’m the greatest!” It sounds ridiculous, and it should, because it was, and because it is. One of the things we can learn loud and clear from this Gospel is just how ridiculous and pointless it is to try to compare ourselves to others. Yes, one of the most universal of human activities – it is a waste of time! Think of how much mental energy we spend on looking at others and what they have, what they’re good at, what they’re doing, and then comparing ourselves with them. When we do this, we don’t usually end up feeling content. No, we usually compare ourselves either favorably or unfavorably with others. And when we compare ourselves favorably with others – in other words, when we perceive ourselves as having some advantage over someone else – the result is often pride. We look down on them. Perhaps we judge them, or are critical of them, or despise them, or feel superior to them. “This person is not as good as me.” Or, “I’m better than that person.” We think that we have greater value than them, that what we’re doing is more important, or that we can’t be bothered with someone like that. Taken to an extreme, we think, “I’m better than everyone.”
Or, we compare ourselves unfavorably with others. And the result is usually sadness, melancholy, or even depression. We feel ashamed. We feel inferior to others. We feel embarrassed by who we are or what we have or what we do. “That person has a nicer car and a nicer house than I.” “This person has more friends.” “That person is smarter, better looking, wittier,” and so on. Taken to an extreme, we end up feeling worthless.
I think that we can all recognize that both of these ways of seeing ourselves in relation to others is flawed. Pride turns us into psychologically unhealthy, self- centered narcissists. Feelings of worthlessness can lead to depression. Both of these can cut us off from others or can harm our relationships, although for different reasons. And both of these fail to see reality as it truly is – as God sees the world, others, and us.
Instead, Jesus gives us a different model. He says, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” And then he takes a child and puts it in the midst of the twelve apostles, and says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives the One who sent me.” What Jesus is calling us to is humble service. I think Humility often gets a bad rap, especially in our self-promoting, aggressive age. Humility is often mistaken for weakness. People often think humility means being a doormat that others can walk on. This is not correct: it takes great strength of character to be truly humble, and it doesn’t mean letting people take advantage of you. Humility is not seeing yourself as worse than others; rather, properly understood, it is seeing reality as God sees it. That includes seeing ourselves as God sees us. We are all created by God; in that sense, we are all his beloved sons and daughters, and God’s love for each one of us is infinite. And since God’s love is infinite, there is no need to compete with one another for it. It’s not a finite resource; it’s not going to run out. God’s love for one person does not mean His love for anyone else is less.
With this in mind, then, we come back to the futility of comparing ourselves – whether favorably or unfavorably – with others. If God loves each one of us with an everlasting, infinite love, what difference does it make if someone has more or less than you? What difference does it make if you are more or less intelligent than someone else? What difference does it make if you are more or less attractive than someone else? Of course, in this world, there is not perfect equality. There never will be – this isn’t heaven. Sure, we can strive for it, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking the human race is ever going to be able to create utopia, heaven on earth. The word utopia, by the way, literally means “no place.”
The point I’m trying to make is that, yes, there are distinctions between people, and yes, not everyone has the same intelligence, or material wealth, or whatever other things we compete over and about which we compare ourselves to others. However, those distinctions do not matter in God’s eyes. Therefore, there is absolutely no point at all in wasting any more time or energy trying to compare yourself with anyone else. If you want to strive to become a better person, become smarter, get in better shape, or whatever, that’s fine, that’s even commendable. We should strive to become the best version of ourselves, as Matthew Kelly puts it. We should strive to use the gifts and talents God has given us, not to waste them. But we should not bother comparing ourselves one way or the other with anyone, because it’s a complete waste of time and it serves no purpose, and it’s even harmful to us.
And this is fantastic news. We don’t call it the Gospel – the Good News – for nothing. Imagine living life without having to compare yourself to anyone anymore. You might be smarter; they might be smarter: it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to worry about that anymore. You are a beloved son or daughter of God Himself.
Jesus takes the world’s standards and flips them upside down. True greatness is found in humility – in humble service of others. If you want to be truly great, and you should, not for your sake but rather for the Lord’s, you should seek to become that through humble service of others. This is a good reminder right now especially for those of us who are clergy, but it’s likewise a good reminder for everyone. And when we serve the least and the lowest, whether we get recognition for our efforts or not, whether anyone one admires us for everything we’re doing or not, when we serve others, we receive the Lord Himself. God loves us, and that should be sufficient, because it is everything.