Misplaced Priorities

Who Shall Be Greatest?
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There was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.—Luke 22:24

Michael Nekora

Jesus had spoken of his coming death (Mark 10:33). Now on this solemn occasion he said one of them would betray him. After a brief flurry of concern over who that might be, the group returned to a subject close to their hearts: Who would be the greatest in the kingdom? It was a question they had put to Jesus previously: “At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1).

On the face of it, this might appear to be a reasonable question. A healthy curiosity on the part of the disciples was often rewarded with information they might not otherwise have been given. But in fact the twelve wanted to know about their own personal status: “Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest” (Luke 9:46).

Rivalry and competitiveness had developed to the point where this was a key question: Who among them was best! They had walked with Jesus for a few years, had served him, and had sacrificed earthly advantages. Perhaps it was time to talk about reward, and particularly who would be on top. Even today many are not interested in doing anything unless they know what’s in it for them.

What answer did Jesus give them? If they were looking for names—and there is no question they were—they had to be disappointed. Jesus took yet another opportunity to teach a lesson he had taught before: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). This is the great paradox of the Bible. If you go after life directly, you’ll never get it. If you go after rewards directly, you won’t get them either. So the Master did not tell them who would be greatest. Instead he taught the lesson of service and humility.

 “[Jesus asked] What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35). The lesson is clear. Instead of discussing who was greatest which is a matter of pride, they should concentrate on humility and how they might serve others. They were supposed to be servants, not masters. Did this settle the matter in their minds? Not at all.

“[James and John] said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory. And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John.” (Mark 10:37,41). It is possible that in the “disputing” that occurred in the previous chapter, James and John thought they deserved a high position in the kingdom. Now they bring up the subject again. Note that the ten are quick to express their displeasure with them rather than let the master deal with it. Once again Jesus takes time to teach a lesson of humility and service they appear reluctant to learn: “Whoever has a mind to be great among you, must be your servant, and whoever has a mind to be first among you, must be your slave” (Mark 10:43,44, Knox translation). The King James and other translations use the word “servant,” not “slave,” although the Greek word is Strongs #1401 and means a slave (lit. or fig., involuntary or voluntary).


Most of us avoid the word slave because of its connotations. Slavery is dehumanizing, it debases an individual. So people today prefer to think about everybody as free to do what they want to do. One serves another only if one wants to serve. Should one lose the desire, one stops serving. But slaves in Roman times had no such freedom. They worked whether they liked it or not. And that is exactly the position of the footstep followers of Jesus Christ.

“What man among you, if he has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep, will say to him when he comes in from the field, Come at once and sit down at the table, instead of saying to him, Get my supper ready, and dress yourself, and wait on me while I eat and drink, and you can eat and drink afterward? Is he grateful to the slave for doing what he has been ordered to do? So you also, when you do all you have been ordered to do, must say, We are good-for-nothing slaves! We have done only what we ought to have done!”—Luke 17:7-10, Goodspeed translation.

A slave does not work on just one day of the week (perhaps on Sunday). A slave does not get vacations or days off. He works. Nothing he can do earns him special favors because it is his duty to serve his master. If he refuses to serve, his life is in jeopardy.

Christians today are in that same position. There is no room for pride or a feeling of special merit because of what we do. It is our duty to serve our master so long as we live. If we think we are doing a good job, we should reflect on these words. At best we are unprofitable slaves. Even though he loved them greatly, Jesus often found his disciples disappointing because of their lack of progress. They probably thought they were doing a good job and were learning their lessons well.

As far as the master-slave relationship is concerned, the Scriptures show something that rarely happens in real life. As Christ’s slaves we are expected to do nothing more than what he himself has already done for us. In fact, we are serving a master who takes pleasure in serving us: “Blessed are the slaves whom their master will find on the watch when he comes. I tell you he will gird up his robe and make them take their places at table, and go around and wait on them” (Luke 12:37, Goodspeed). This is not the usual situation of a slave and an earthly master. Throughout the Bible we are told to copy the characteristics of our perfect master, Jesus.

“Do nothing in a spirit of factiousness or of vainglory, but with humility let every one regard the rest as being of more account than himself; each fixing his attention, not simply on his own interests, but also on those of others. Let the very spirit which was in Christ Jesus be in you also. From the beginning He had the nature of God. Yet He did not regard equality with God as something at which He should grasp. Nay, He stripped Himself of His glory, and took on Him the nature of a bondservant by becoming a man like other men. And being recognized as truly human, He humbled Himself and even stooped to die; and that too, a death on the cross.”—Philippians 2:3-8, Weymouth translation, fifth edition, 1929.

The highlighted word “bondservant” is also Strongs #1401 and means a slave. The lesson taught by Paul is that we are not to look for any earthly advantage. We are slaves! But the old human nature within us makes it easy to forget.

The Parable of the Penny

Suppose you were unemployed and did not know how you were going to feed your family. And suppose you were given the chance to do one day’s work and get one day’s pay for it. Would you be grateful for the opportunity? Let us see!

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like an employer who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. He agreed with the laborers to pay them $64 a day{NOTE: The King James has “a penny a day.” The Greek word is denarius and is translated “the usual day’s wage” in the New English Bible. Edgar J. Goodspeed’s original 1923 translation says “a dollar a day.” His translation of denarius has been replaced in this citation with the current minimum wage in the state of California for eight hours of work in vineyards.}, and sent them to his vineyard. He went out about nine o’clock and saw others standing in the bazaar with nothing to do. And he said to them, You go to my vineyard, too, and I will pay you whatever is right. So they went. He went out again about twelve and about three, and did the same. About five he went out and found others standing about and he said to them, Why have you been standing about here all day doing nothing? They said to him, Because nobody has hired us. He said to them, You go to my vineyard, too. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last and ending with the first. When those who were hired about five o’clock came they received $64 each. And when those who were hired first came they expected to get more, but they too got $64 each. And when they received it they grumbled at their employer and said, These men who were hired last worked only one hour and you have put them on the same footing with us who have done the heavy work of the day and have stood the midday heat. But he answered one of them, My friend, I am doing you no injustice. Did you not agree with me on $64? Take what belongs to you and go. I wish to give the last man hired as much as I give you. Have I no right to do what I please with what is mine? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”—Matthew 20:1-16, Goodspeed.

We can understand the feelings of those who had worked all day. Of course, they knew what they had been promised, yet they saw a most generous employer as he settled accounts with others. Surely he would be even more generous with them! But what they failed to see was that they were at best unprofitable servants and fortunate to have been selected by the master to be a part of his labor force.

This parable has troubled some because it appears as though a few who get to heaven may grumble about it, expecting they deserved a higher position than others. But this parable is not describing heaven. When Jesus preached about the kingdom, his audience was typically divided into two groups: scribes and Pharisees, and publicans and sinners. The scribes and Pharisees criticized Jesus because he associated with the sinners. They believed they were the ones who had served God “through the heat of the day” and thus deserved special consideration. They could not understand why publicans and sinners should be treated the same as themselves who were obviously more faithful to God. The wage paid was an opportunity to become a follower of the master and gain eternal life. Everyone received the same opportunity no matter how long each one may have previously served in what they perceived as the “vineyard of Jehovah.” The lesson is similar to that of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In that parable an elder brother does not want the father to show generosity to a younger brother because he does not deserve it. But God’s generosity is not earned. Whatever we receive from him is a gift. We do not merit it.

“Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). Although spoken about the harvest of the Jewish age, conditions are similar today during the harvest of the Gospel age. Rather than grumble about opportunities given to others who perhaps in our judgment do not deserve them, let us rejoice over every worker in this harvest. Let us never begrudge the generosity of the Lord. He can bestow his favor on other friends, other congregations, and other groups just as he has been bestowing his favor on us.

Some followers of the master may sometimes want to see those who reject their proclamation of truth be punished. Such punishment coming upon others would be a subtle indication that God’s favor shines upon themselves, not upon those who disagree with them. It was immediately after the lesson about who should be greatest that we read these words: “And he sent messengers in advance, who entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him. But the people there would not receive him, because he was evidently going to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, Master, do you wish us to order fire to come down from heaven and consume them? But he turned and rebuked them. And they went to another village.” (Luke 9:52-56, Weymouth).

Evidently it did not occur to James and John that Jesus was able to call down fire from heaven if he thought that was the right thing to do. Clearly James and John wanted to show those Samaritans just who they were rejecting. Calling down fire would also show how important they were. Determining who would be the greatest often seemed to affect the judgment of those closest to Jesus.


A little-known character in the book of Jeremiah displayed many of these same characteristics. His name was Baruch. “Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah: and Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord which he had spoken unto him, upon a roll of a book. And Jeremiah commanded Baruch, saying, I am shut up; I cannot go into the house of the Lord. Therefore go thou, and read in the roll, which thou hast written from my mouth, the words of the Lord in the ears of the people in the Lord’s house upon the fasting day: and also thou shalt read them in the ears of all Judah that come out of their cities.” (Jeremiah 36:4-6).

Baruch was Jeremiah’s secretary, writing what was dictated to him. Since Jeremiah had been barred from speaking in the temple court, Baruch was asked to do it in his place. Baruch did read the prophecies of Jeremiah to the people. Some of the princes heard the reading and requested a private audience. In verse 15 Baruch read it a second time just for the princes. Without question, Baruch took great pride in this experience and expected to accomplish what Jeremiah could not do himself. We know from a later chapter that Baruch thought he would enjoy great success by converting the hearers to follow the ways of the Lord: “Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, unto thee, O Baruch; Thou didst say, Woe is me now! for the LORD hath added grief to my sorrow; I fainted in my sighing, and I find no rest. Thus shalt thou say unto him, The LORD saith thus; Behold, that which I have built will I break down, and that which I have planted I will pluck up, even this whole land. And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.” (Jeremiah 45:2-5).

“Seekest thou great things for thyself?” The implication is that Baruch expected to accomplish great things. That is a failing associated with the flesh. Even today we may want our congregation to do things others cannot do, or we may want to be associated with the largest group, or do things better than they have ever been done before. When we do these things, we will, of course, say we are doing them for the glory of God. But when God reads our heart, might there be a little “Baruch” in all of us? Might we be doing it for our own glory as well? “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not!”

Earlier Jeremiah dictated these words to Baruch: “Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:23,24). How could the wise, the mighty, or the rich glory in those things? As far as God is concerned, we are all unprofitable servants and at best have only done those things we ought. If there is to be any glory at all, it belongs to God.

Paul probably had these words in mind when he wrote, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty … that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Corinthians 1:27,29). So if we should start to feel particularly proud of our relationship to God or our accomplishments on his behalf, let us remind ourselves that we are part of the foolish and weak things selected by God so that we might never glory in what we have, or in what we have done (cf., 1 Corinthians 4:7).

Future Rewards

Slaves could be born into a household, work from dawn to dusk in that household, and die without even a word of thanks. That was the way things were for slaves. Even though we all are unprofitable slaves and at best do what we ought to do, we know we are working for a master who knows how to reward his own. Jesus mentioned this in answer to a query from Peter: “Then Peter said, Lo, we have left all and followed thee. And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Luke 18:28-30).

Peter had just heard a rich young ruler ask what he should do to inherit eternal life. The ruler went away without making the commitment they had made. Jesus told them that they would be rewarded far beyond their expectations. He said something similar in his sermon on the mount: “Blessed are ye when men shall hate you ... for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:22,23).

Our treasure is in heaven, not upon earth. We have been promised that, if faithful, we will receive the crown of eternal life, the divine nature. Although we have many blessings today as a part of the present inheritance of the saints, this is not the time for reward. We must not seek great things for ourselves. Any “increase” from our feeble efforts belongs to God. It is not the result of our special abilities. “Seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:31,32).

If we fix our eyes on that great prize of the high calling and if we look for opportunities to serve those around us, ours will be an abundant entrance into the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.