The Least Among You
When the evangelist Luke writes in Chapter Nine of his gospel that “the least among all of you is the greatest,” the sentiment is not new for the reader. In Matthew, for instance, when he’s berating the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant,” and “whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:11-12). 
Humility was probably not a popular concept back then. It’s not particularly popular now, either, at least not in Western cultures. In hunter-gatherer societies, however, being humble is often more acceptable. Frans de Waal gives an example of such humility from the !Kung San tribe. He tells the story of a hunter coming back home from the day’s hunt. Without speaking, the man sits at the fire and waits. A ritualized interaction ensues. The hunter is asked what he has seen that day. He will modestly claim to have seen nothing; well, maybe he saw something, but what he saw was only very small.
From these words, those listening will understand that the hunter really made a big kill. For him to brag about it, though, would be unseemly. The community will find out soon enough what he brought to share with them, and share he will, for his tribe holds high the values of community well-being and equality among all the people.
Individuality and Competition versus Humility
By contrast, Western societies promote individuality and personal achievement. If a hunter from a Western culture were to behave like the modest !Kung San hunter, his listeners might conclude he was trying to hide something. Not that this would be so strange in a competitive culture like ours. In the United States, individuals are encouraged to make a lot of money, buy a lot of possessions, and hold onto what they have. Greed and subterfuge are not strange to us.
“In such an environment,” de Waal writes, “humility can be hazardous.” 
Perhaps that was why, according to Luke’s gospel, the disciples were jostling for position that day. It’s a Western male kind of thing.
Like the Chimps
We come by it naturally. Our chimpanzee cousins are like that, too. In chimp societies, de Waal observed intrigue, manipulation, and outright bullying. About these male chimps, he wrote, “They take their power games very seriously and are ready to kill their rivals.” 
We humans do this, as well. We did it in ancient Rome, and we do it today in twenty-first century America. If this were all we knew of relationships, then Jesus’ messages of humility would make no sense at all. But physical strength, dominance, and vengeance are not the only values that influence family life or politics in our country. Even in the West, we can behave like the generous and humble !Kung San.
Chimpanzees can also behave with generosity. Female chimps routinely show empathy and compassion, but so do males. They will all take care of orphaned children, help injured strangers, and support old or dying community members. Along with researcher Jessica Flack, de Waal discovered that when males reach middle age, they sometimes take on the role of peacemaker. They play with youngsters, groom one another, and break up fights. Even if a weak animal is not their friend, the elder male will protect him. The chimps serve not their individual interests, but those of the entire community. 
Like our simian relatives, we, too, can act to further the best interests of our communities or families, even if that inconveniences us. Indeed, studies performed by James Rilling indicate that the human brain is biased toward cooperation. It takes purposeful concentration for us to overcome our natural urge to assist others. Maybe that’s because when we help someone else, our brains reward us with a flood of “happiness” chemicals. “Doing good feels good,” says de Waal. 
When Society Falls Apart
However, there are some people who do not experience that good feeling. They do not mirror the emotions of another and have no ability to empathize. To such individuals, helping others makes sense only from a utilitarian standpoint. These are the psychopaths among us. Unfortunately, such broken individuals find fulfillment, if fulfillment is possible for them, in the challenge of competition and the thrill of dominance. They attempt to prove their worth through power, money, and control. When such people run businesses, employees suffer. When they run countries, society falls apart. Violence, oppression, and distrust become the norm. What, then, do we do?
We tell new stories and revive old ones.
According to Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen, we are the “story-telling ape.” Close relatives of the chimpanzee and bonobo, we nonetheless differ from them because of the complexity of the stories we tell. The authors suspect that without our ability to imagine scenarios and invent devices, we would never have harnessed fire nor constructed smart phones. Stories help us understand our world. Even scientific ideas are made up of carefully-crafted tales. For instance, “Newton’s laws of motion are simple, little stories about what happens when to lumps of matter when they are given a push.” 
In other words, what we understand about science isn’t really factual. The facts of the world are too big and complex for our minds to comprehend, yet we might be able to understand the stories that represent the facts, that serve as metaphors for reality.
Yet even when we don’t fully understand them, for stories can be as complex and mysterious as science, they can influence us in ways nothing else can. A good tale can shock us, crack us open, and change our hearts.
The Value of Parable
That’s what makes the biblical stories so important. Although they do not startle us these days, for we are used to them, their message remains counter-cultural, reminding us that dominance is not a virtue and weakness is not shameful. Jesus, the hero of the gospels, is gentle and humble. Instead of trying to win, he gives up everything, even his life.
Not that Jesus was meek and obsequious. He could get angry, and he wasn’t afraid to hold leaders accountable for their hypocrisy. He relished verbal sparring, holding his own in a world where a man’s honor is his most important possession. Yet Jesus didn’t crave position or riches. He had a true power, one grounded in love, kindness, wisdom, and humility. Unfortunately, he had a hard time getting the world to understand the soft and gentle power that he had. Even his disciples seemed not to understand it.
Their obtuseness may have given Jesus a sense of urgency. As the time of his death neared and he knew he would be leaving his beloved people in the hands of these twelve men, he may have started to worry. His chosen evangelists didn’t seem to be ready.
Confused by a New Worldview
To give them credit, they had had a difficult week. First Jesus anointed them and sent them throughout Jerusalem to spread the good news and heal the sick. As instructed, the disciples took nothing with them, only what the wore. Surely they succeeded in reaching some people, but they probably failed most of the time, being cursed, maybe struck with staffs. They were hungry, tired, aching, and thirsty.
When Jesus wandered around the countryside, he made it look easy. He even fed five thousand people with nothing but a few loaves and couple of fish. Though their hands had broken the bread, the disciples knew it was not their power that had endlessly divided the loaves. On their own, they could never perform such a miracle. They felt insignificant.
Then Jesus made them more uncomfortable by asking who the people said he was. The crowds thought he was Elijah returned to Earth or some other prophet.
“And you?” Jesus asked.
“The Messiah of God,” Peter told him (9:20).
What Is a Messiah?
Though this was the right answer, it may still have been difficult for Peter to fully grasp. When the disciples had been children, they had probably been told stories about a messiah who would come to earth in full battle gear, his strength superior to that of the evil ones. In an instant, he would vanquish Israel’s enemies. The world would become safe for widows and little children. Peace and justice would reign.
But Jesus hadn’t done that. His was a different kind of story, and the disciples were struggling to get used to it. Then, while they were reeling from all that had happened so far, Jesus predicted that he would suffer and be killed. Really?
Their first-century Jewish minds struggled unsuccessfully to take this in.
On the Mountaintop
So Jesus tried another story. He took Peter, John, and James up to the top of the mountain. There, they witnessed Jesus’ clothes turning white as he prayed. They heard Moses and Elijah speaking to him. Then, a terrifying cloud boomed out, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (9:35).
As Peter, John, and James staggered with Jesus down the mountain, they must have trembled from their experience. Since they had promised not to tell anyone what had happened, they had to keep their mouths shut, but surely the other disciples knew something was up. The three were just too shaken.
But without even giving them time to recover, Jesus pressed them on. Again, they wandered out among the people, and again they failed. As a man carried his son to Jesus for healing, he complained that the disciples had been unable to cast out the demon that was tormenting the boy. Turning on the disciples, Jesus cried out, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear you?” (9:41).
Ouch. For a gentle and compassionate guy, Jesus could be a little rough.
But he was their master, their elder, their teacher, their messiah. The disciples might feel ashamed at times, but they knew Jesus loved them unconditionally, and they loved him. So after Jesus healed that boy, and he turned to the men and warned them that he was going to say something they really needed to listen to, the disciples tried to understand. But when he said he was “going to be betrayed into human hands,” they just couldn’t get it. Betrayed? The messiah? Into human hands? Huh?
This scared them so much, they didn’t even dare ask what he was talking about.
Releasing Their Tension
Feeling nervous, confused, and humiliated by their failures, the disciples had had enough. They just wanted to feel better. So they did what young men do. They ignored what they didn’t want to know, and they distracted themselves with a little bit of honest competition. They started arguing about who among them was the greatest.
Jesus didn’t even bother letting them get into it. He cut them right off. From the crowd, he pulled a child close to him and said, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among you is the greatest” (9:46-48).
That shut them up. They might not have understood everything he was talking about, but it was clear Jesus was telling them to stop squabbling. Although he was not that much older than they, he was certainly wiser. Like the control males in a chimpanzee tribe, Jesus used the power of his presence to bring peace to his community.
Of course, the end of an argument does not necessarily mean the end of tension. Even after Jesus died, the disciples would continue to vie for position. Who was in charge? Who would lead the church? Like us, they forgot that with power comes responsibility, that loving your neighbor means loving even those who harm you, and that the humblest is also the greatest.
The Old Story
When Jesus wrapped the little child in his arm and pulled him close, he was showing all of us that posturing is unnecessary. Even when the disciples failed to heal the seizing child, failed to recognize the sacred in one another, they were loved. We, too, are loved, even when we fail. Sometimes we feel like the least, broken, incompetent, and humiliated rather than humble. But if we can hear the new stories, the ones that remind us of how sacred we really are, we might see that within our brokenness and humility lies our greatness.
Today in our country, some who are strong in body and belligerence openly threaten and even kill those who are gentle, kind, honest, innocent, weak, or vulnerable. We might take comfort in Jesus’ promise that the greatest will be made the least and the least will be the greatest, but we cannot wait for the apocalypse to arrive and God to vanquish our enemies. We must use the power we have to vote, to protest, and to proclaim the strength of love and justice. It is possible for us to turn the world upside down, to give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. Our culture spreads tales that promote independence, achievement, and physical prowess. These are not, in and of themselves, evil. Yet when we also condemn weakness and spread hatred, we destroy lives and injure souls.
The Least Among You
There are other stories.
For instance, there is Luke’s tale about a gentle man who humbles himself and, in his suffering, becomes the greatest of us all. Though almost two thousand years old, this story is still counter-cultural. Always there will be rulers who bully others and abuse their power, yet that is not the end. There will also be leaders who temper their lust and greed, who understand the value of compassion. They know that they are truly servants, there to protect the vulnerable. One day, even in the United States, justice will return to the land. With the power of compassion and cooperation, we will make that happen.
First, though, we must discover our own greatness, a greatness that comes from honesty, gentleness, empathy, and humility. Some stories remind us of how beautiful we are, how sensitive and kind, how strong in faith and courageous in love. Tell those. Instead of stories about brutality, tell stories of courage, cooperation, and generosity. Instead of stories that spread shame and ridicule, tell stories that promote acceptance and compassion.
If we do this, we will find that the greatest will become the least, and the least really will become great.
In faith and fondness,
- All scripture quotes are from the NRSV.
- de Waal, Frans, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, New York: W.W. Norton, 2013, 150.
- Ibid 14.
- Ibid 40.
- Ibid 45.
- Pratchett, Terry, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen, The Globe: The Science of Discworld II, New York: Anchor Books, 2002, 186.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens