Teaching on Greatness

51. Teaching on Greatness

The disciples have gotten caught up in a very human predicament: they are trying to rank themselves socially – who is smarter, richer, taller, greater, whatever. For the ego-centric, enculturated self, as we’ve discussed before, hierarchy and knowing your place are very important.

But once again Jesus turns the logic of the ego on its head, and says that in the kingdom of God, being first means to be last of all and minister of all. Huh? How does that work? Well, there’s a stanza from a great song that Louis Armstrong recorded, called “What a Wonderful World.” It goes like this:

“I see the children,
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll ever know
And I say to myself, what a wonderful world…”

And that’s the way knowledge works, right? If you want to be first—say, the one who knows the most – you have to be last. Only then do you have the advantage of all the learning that came before you. It also places upon you the responsibility to spread and enlarge that knowledge for the benefit of those who come after…which would make you a “minister of all.”

The genius of Jesus is that he speaks from such a totally different frame of reference – one that takes in a greatly expanded context of existence. His teachings extend our horizons of time and space, and place the human species not at the pinnacle of existence, but on a continuum: as inheritors of a wealth of past wisdom and success, and as torchbearers of the present with tremendous responsibility for future outcomes.

The radical nature of this perspective is what makes many of his teachings – even today – so hard to understand and to seem at times to defy common sense. Because from a more typical, limited (egocentric) perspective, they often don’t make sense.

That’s why the first step in understanding Jesus’ teachings is to understand his worldview: all life is part of one seamless whole, all an expression of a single, loving spirit. When we clearly perceive and align with that spirit, we fulfill our true identity and like a healthy flower, life blossoms. When we fail to perceive and align, we suffer, just as a seed suffers when it fails to find the right combination of sun, soil and rain.

How do we know when we are in alignment? We are loving and responsive. How do we know when we are out of alignment? We are hateful and resistant. Pretty simple. And yet, not simple at all.

Oh yes, and that business about salt? Well, once again it’s about being true to our real selves. When salt loses its saltness, it loses its identity. Jesus is saying that by tending to the things of man – preoccupation with status and power, for example – we lose our true identity as a vehicle for the spirit of God.

[See also “Teaching on Standards of Greatness,” Commentary 14-87.]