In some families the dictum that all comparisons are odious rules supreme, but for many, growing up is a prolonged immersion in a competitive gene pool.
His / hers is better than, bigger than mine. He / she is brighter, better behaved, more outgoing, more compliant than, more and more and on it goes.
You might have seen those ingratiating and equally irritating Yellow pages ads with Thai Restaurants on either side of the street. Bow Thai trumps High Thai becomes Thai Harder. And now sadly, it looks like General Thai trumps them all.
In Gods family, Jesus shows us, there is a very different set of values at work.
James spells it out in blunt prose; "who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."
If there is something we are to Thai Harder" at, its not to be competitiveness, but a good life and gentle works.
There were two traders who were bitter rivals, they spent their days staring across the street at each other. When ever one got a customer he would smile in triumph at his rival.
One night, as often happens in fables, an angel appeared to one of them in a dream and said, "God has sent me to you to teach you a lesson. God will give you anything you ask for, but for whatever you get, your competitor will get twice as much.
You can be wealthy, but he will be twice as rich, would you be famous, healthy, live long, whatever you like, but your rival will be twice as famous, healthy and live longer."
The man frowned and thought, then he said, "Alright, strike me blind in one eye."
Competitiveness can be a terrible curse depending on how you let it effect you. Now, I much prefer the way Jesus deals with the competition amongst his disciples to the way this angel teaches the shopkeepers their lesson! But both stories illustrate the point that rivalry can do much harm and the lessons to correct its influence might need to be dramatic!
Here the disciples, chatting on the way to Capernaum,
Imagine listening in; "Wow, whose funeral do you think was bigger and better; Brockys or Steves?, and how about the football, not one Victorian team still playing this weekend ! and what about the Davis Cup in Argentina?
NO! the disciples werent talking current affairs, sport or politics and they werent even going over their theological ground work. They could have been asking each other "now what can we ask Jesus about predestination, the trinity and transubstantiation today?
No, it wasnt theology, they were arguing about who was the best of them. Common everyday competitive, ugly rivalry!
"I had Jesus over to lunch with my whole family the other day, uncle Bart the ex-mayor and all the tribe." "Yeah, well he healed my mother in law!" "Thats nothing - sad really! - I got to sit next to Jesus 5 out of 8 times in the last week!" - all that is written there somewhere between the lines! You can just hear the pettiness. Perhaps its a particularly male thing to argue over who or what is greatest? Its never attractive.
Little wonder that when Jesus got the disciples inside, he wanted to know what it was all meant to be about. They were silent - awkward, embarrassed. But then Jesus doesnt attack their pettiness or give them a tongue lashing for their small minded bickering. His approach to the subject models his values as much as his words.
We mostly attribute value to those who have power. At some levels that has been physical power: an army. Its also about having wealth, political power, family power. It is having a sense of ones own importance, putting yourself up by putting others down. It can also be that some people are powerful and have authority without such motives. They may simply be physically strong. They may have been placed in positions of responsibility.
People then attribute greatness to such people because of their power and authority. They are saying such people are of greatest value. Traditionally in most societies this related also to gender: fathers and kings, although in principle and in practice the tendency is not gender specific.
Jesus is challenging both stances: people wanting to use power to establish their own value and people using power as the measure of value of human beings. Jesus subverts both. True greatness is not about either of these relations to power. True greatness is to be like Jesus, a truly powerful person, but who valued himself not because of power but because of his being and his doing the will of God, which meant lowliness, in his case including following the path to the cross. Jesus, in Mark subverts the standard values.
He takes a small child and puts her in the middle of them - it must have been some sort of home base because women and children just slip naturally into the story at points like this - and then with the child in his arms, Jesus says, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
The first are last, the children are key people, welcoming the vulnerable and unimportant is vital in Gods reckoning!
Jesus shows us again and again that the values of Gods kingdom are upside down to the way most of the world thinks.
To "welcome one such child" is a challenging invitation even today when we have UN declarations on the rights of the child.
Our world still has child slavery, sweatshop labor full of under age children and children forced in to prostitution.
What will it mean for us to not bicker about who is responsible and simply do things to help.
In Darfur, Sudan there are about 1.9 million people displaced and there is increasing violence and sexual abuse against women and children. There are 34,000 displaced by floods in Ethiopia currently, with UNICEF trying to help 3 million children there. Everyday in our world, right now there are over 1,700 new AIDS cases from mother child transmission and each day about 1,400 children under 15 die of AIDS related illness.
"Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me - and the one who sent me."
Here in Australia, indigenous poverty affects children most severely and the symptoms of the hopelessness it causes are seen in a petrol sniffing epidemic.
"Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me - and the one who sent me."
We hear Jesus saying, "loose your life to find it, take up the cross - a symbol of death - to have true life." Its not the fastest, cleverest, richest, most powerful that God values most, but the inverse of all these; the small, the vulnerable, those who are left out. Ive just touched on the tip of the iceberg today.
And if theres a challenge here for us, after weve recovered from not being the greatest, then its to think about what we do in answer to Jesus words. "Whoever welcomes one such child" this is obviously about more than smiling kindly at the children we meet.
This is a direct challenge to you and me, to help the small, the weak the powerless ones in our community and more broadly in our world. More of those who are now last, need first help, first aid to be put first. Helping the smallest, the least, the powerless is the mark of being a Christian, by Jesus standard.
As Gods church, as citizens of Gods kingdom the call to us is to reflect these values of Jesus in who we are and in what we do. "who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness, born of wisdom."
To value the little ones, to welcome all and so welcome God.