Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves. You have stayed with Me in My time of trial. And just as My Father has granted Me a Kingdom, I now grant you the right to eat and drink at My table in My Kingdom. And you will sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.Luke 22:24-30
The positioning and structure of this segment raises a lot of questions:
- Why is Luke the only Gospel writer to include this segment?
- Did this really happen here or has Luke imported it from another place?
The related passage is found in Matt 18 but the parallel to this segment is omitted by Luke in his parallel passage at the time but he then includes it here.
Someone came to Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” “Why ask Me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. But to answer your question—if you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man asked. And Jesus replied: “‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “I’ve obeyed all these commandments,” the young man replied. “What else must I do?” Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ll say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” Then Peter said to Him, “We’ve given up everything to follow You. What will we get?” Jesus replied, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon His glorious throne, you who have been My followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for My sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”Matthew 19:16-30
You can find my coverage of this passage in my comments on Luke 18:18-30 (Gems 1117 – 1120). It is very clear that Luke has kept this segment related to the disciples judging the 12 tribes of Israel. Luke now uses this segment at the end of the dispute between the disciples after the betrayal. I suspect in terms of timing it belonged where Matthew put it. Luke has saved it up and used it in this position. We have to work out why. I will deal with the closing segment later.
- What was the dispute about?
- Does this link to what went before or is it a totally separate pericope?
It seems a strange time for the disciples to have an argument about who would be greatest. Especially in the light of Jesus’ comment about the one who would betray Him. Why would the disciples have an argument following such a statement? At the table upon hearing Jesus’ statement related to His betrayer they began debating “whose hand it was” that would do this terrible thing. This is an interesting expression. Either all hands were on the table and the hand is being used in a figure of speech to represent the person. This is a Hebraism for the involvement of one of them in this way. It matches the Indonesian term campur tangan (“mix or put your hand in the matter” – to interfere or get involved). The question among of the disciples is who would do such a thing. Following which we have this curious reference to the dispute among them as to who was the greatest. Why would such a dispute arise at that time? Clearly there was something that happened to precipitate such a dispute. Some see it as referring back to the setting for the feast and the layout of the room. I have already discussed the positioning of the couches and the usual prioritizing of who would “sit” where. It is possible that their dispute was based on the pecking order among them. But I personally feel that debate was already settled at the beginning of the meal when the disciples took their places. I think rather what happened was the debate started at the other end of the spectrum. Namely they were talking about who in their right mind would betray Jesus. When Jesus pointed to Judas by giving him the sop, then it seems they were shocked. Luke’s point with the inclusion of this pericope in this place is to draw attention to the fact that any one of them could have been the betrayer as I discussed a few days ago. Given that focus they at first must have debated their unworthiness, following which they turned to their worthiness.
There are some of us who are prone to seeing things from a bottom up perspective and there are others of us who see things from the top down. No matter whether the topic starts positive some of us will soon turn it toward the negative. On the other hand if the topic starts negative there are those who will turn it naturally to the positive. I think that is what happened here. They started discussing who could likely do such a thing and likely as not debated among themselves whether they were all capable of betraying Jesus. But in a few short sentences their discussion regarding betrayal turned the other way and they ended up discussing which of them was the greatest. It is natural albeit a little strange given the context.
Were they concerned about themselves and how they measure up individually or were they more concerned about how others saw them? The Greek construction in this case uses the comparative [greater] and not the superlative [greatest] as we would expect or as most translations translate it. It is all to do with the greater among the disciples. So often we are concerned with what others think of us rather than being concerned with the absolute of us as individuals in the light of God’s standard. To be the best that I can be rather than to be the best of the bunch. In this case the input to their discussion instead of causing them to consider where they were as individuals seems to have prompted them to debate the matter on the basis of the band of disciples as a whole. There are times when if we are allow our gaze to be swayed by comparison with others, we miss the importance of examining our own heart. It is not a matter of how I compare with others. It is a question of where I am at myself. Is there room for improvement here. Could I do such a thing? If at times like this I allow my gaze to include others it can easily provide an excuse for me to relax and think that I am not doing so bad after all. The challenge here is not to compare ourselves with the others and conclude that I am actually ok, because I am better than them. But rather to consider myself in the light of God’s standards and draw my conclusions from that comparison rather than excuse my inadequacies in the light of others who are not doing as well as me. This is a very real human tendency that needs to be overcome at any moment. Be on your guard. Don’t fall into the trap of the disciples of explaining away your inadequacies because you are doing alright compared with others.
There is more to this if we consider something else buried in this passage. I am referring to the element “Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank . . . ” This is an interesting construction. Literally Jesus is referring to the kings of the Gentiles or the nations. The inference being: the Gentiles behave like that, but you Jews ought to be different. In the very beginning the Israelites wanted a king because they wanted to be like the nations around them. God said “No”, I am your King. But they wanted to be like the nations anyway. Be careful about wanting to be like the world or the nations. It is not healthy. Don’t let the desire to be like those around you pull you aside from God’s standards.
Following this first feature there is the phrase “called friends of the people” or “called benefactors”. There are two interpretations of this element. Clearly it is a reference to kings being called benefactors, i.e. working for the good of the people. Herod liked this title. Ah but who is calling them this? Is it the people or is it the king himself who gives himself this title but in effect it is far from the truth? The meaning of the construction hinges on whether it is a verb in the middle voice meaning “calls themselves benefactors” or whether it is a passive meaning “are called that by others” A delicate matter of perspective. It matters not what you call yourself. Nor does it matter what others call you. What really matters is what God calls you! For God looks on the heart; man is swayed by appearances but God sees the inner things of the heart. Make sure you have a sound estimation of yourself. Don’t allow yourself to play the comparison game too easily.
The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist, the hole. But the realist sees the calories!Anon
Stop letting people who do so little for you control so much of your mind, feelings and emotions!Rick Godwin
Don’t let someone change who you are, to become what they need!Anon
Don’t let comparing yourself with others become your excuse for not changing yourself.Ian Vail