What makes a person great? Greatness and God

William Loader

What makes a person great? Some would answer: power. Others would say: wealth. In the ancient world the most highly honoured person was the usually the king. The king had the strongest army, controlled vast riches and presided over a splendid court. People often saw the king as a god or, at least, as God’s representative on earth. God was also a king, a king of kings, surrounded by even greater glory and mighty above all.

It is not so long ago that people claimed the right to rule over others because of their wealth and their status. But something has changed. Today we respect and honour people not because of their birth or wealth or even their power, but because they are decent, caring human beings. We look for politicians who will put the good of the community first ahead of their own ambitions of grandeur.

In our personal lives the respect which we want from those around us is not fear and subservience but love and acceptance. We want to be valued for who we are. We want our children eventually to become our companions and peers. Our way of honouring people has also changed. It will often have nothing to do with kneeling or prostrating ourselves before others, but it will have a sense of awe and respect nevertheless.

Currently we are playing ‘catch-up’ with our ways of talking about God. Traditionally we have been accustomed to speak of God as the king with all the trappings: power, might, glory, throne, and the rest. It served people well who saw greatness in those terms. As we speak of God in this way we keep such values alive. After all, people want to be like God and use God as their model!

Is God really like that? Is greatness really about power and wealth and glory? These are not really only modern questions. They have been around for a long time. Jesus once called his disciples’ attention to the way kings held power and were considered great (Mark 10:42-45). It was not how he saw greatness. Instead he claimed that the person who cared for others is the great person. Lowliness and love is greatness. This was also something which Jesus applied to himself. He explained: he himself came not to be served but to serve. That should have been obvious by looking at his life.

When people looked at his death they realised the same thing. In his brokenness on the cross he was a king, but a king of a very different kind. It contradicted the dominant models of his day. If people persisted in speaking about kings, then they needed to think in a totally different way of being king. He wore a crown of thorns. ‘The king of love my shepherd is’! Jesus turned the old idea upside down. God’s ‘kingdom’ was a message of good news for ordinary people, because it was characterised by love.

Jesus did the same with ‘father’. Instead of being an image of someone aloof and powerful, Jesus gives us a picture of a father moved by love and compassion (as in the parable of the prodigal son).

Jesus taught a new way of assessing greatness and we are slowly learning what he meant. The kind of greatness which God values in human beings is not having power and wealth, but having compassion. This is also the kind of greatness Jesus wanted people to recognise in himself. This is too often forgotten when our human notions of king, lord, and power take over and we forget that Jesus turned such ideas upside down.

Of course none of this makes any sense if God still runs on the old value system. Is it power and wealth and glory that still matters most when we think of God? Are God and Jesus running on different value systems? A flip through many of our hymns and songs might lead us to answer: yes. Then what matters most about God is being almighty, powerful and glorious, but, in contradiction, what matters most about Jesus is lowliness, compassion and love; unless, as sometimes happens, Jesus has also been painted in courtroom splendour according to the old power model. Even if we try to be lowly and loving, the more we take ‘God’ as our model, as our god, the more we will undo the values taught and embodied by Jesus.

What are we to do? A first step is to recognise that Jesus and God are not on different tracks and operating on different value systems. Jesus is not at odds with God or an exception to the way God usually is. Quite the contrary, God was in Christ. In Jesus we see God and we see what God is like. Worldly notions of greatness have clouded our ideas of God. We need to think more carefully about the consequences. One of the reasons why Christians have not been very good about the greatness of compassion is that so often our images of God have undermined our values. It can do so Sunday after Sunday.

Jesus struggled to get the point across to his disciples. It was hard going and it still is, because it is people’s interests to prefer the old model. He pointed to the greatness of a poor widow. He washed his disciples’ feet. In one sense he died trying to get the point across - for us.

When we see God’s greatness in a new way, it does not mean that we have to deny God’s power. It certainly does not mean we stop worshipping God. But worship takes on a new meaning because it has a new starting point. Instead of starting with the image of a royal court in all its splendour, we may do well to start with those moments when we have felt a deep sense of awe towards someone, a deep sense of respect and love. Those moments will generate their own images and patterns of behaviour. If our worship comes from this kind of understanding of greatness then it is more likely to generate such values among those who participate than images which were born in the old models.

If we still use the old images - they are certainly present strongly in scripture - then we can make sure that the cross-version of kingship controls the meaning. In some ways the distinctive thing about the scriptures and certainly about Jesus is that he subverted the common meanings of king and father. The job still needs doing. They were already limited because they were male and reflected (and so reinforced) male power. But they were also fundamentally flawed when they conveyed an understanding of greatness which Jesus came to contradict. It is worth thinking about theology. Greatness? Try the way of Jesus as an alternative!