Greatness in the Eyes of God

Fr. Luke Veronis

How many of us wish to be great in the eyes of God?  I would hope that any serious believer would make this a central goal in life – to be considered great in the eyes of God. And yet, how should we understand such spiritual greatness? What makes someone great?

Today, we have two memorable examples that teach us about such spiritual greatness.  First, we hear Jesus explain greatness to His disciples in the Gospel reading. Second, on this 5th Sunday of Lent we remember the example of St. Mary of Egypt, a beloved saint of the desert, who defines greatness in a very different manner than that described in the Gospel reading.

Let’s first look at the example we heard in today’s Gospel. The Apostles James and John approach Jesus and ask for a special favor. They want to be considered great in a worldly sense, and thus ask Christ to give them the position of honor in His future kingdom. How great it would be, they think, if you allow us to sit each at Your right hand and left! Of course, the other disciples are indignant when they hear of their audacity to ask such a thing. Maybe some of them were even upset that they hadn’t requested this of Jesus first! But our Lord surprises them all when He explains what greatness means in the kingdom of God. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must become a servant to others, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

In this single explanation, Christ turns the world’s understanding of greatness upside down! The rich and powerful of the world think that greatness revolves around money, fame, and control of others. In other words, many in the world consider themselves important or great if others are waiting on them and serving them. Jesus says that Christianity, however, has a fundamentally different perspective. Greatness is not found in being served, but in serving others; not in dominating others, but in humbling submitting to others. Why? Because the root of humble service is selfless love. Humble service is love in action.

St. Paul explained it this way: “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

The entire life of Christ on earth was one act after another of serving others.  He did not come on earth to demand others to serve him. He reached out to others, helped others, served others, and finally offered his life for others. One of the most unforgettable images of Christ is during the Last Supper when he got on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples. What an act of humble, selfless service. An act His disciples would surely never forget! “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,” Jesus went on to say, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:12-15, 34-35).

This concept of humbly serving others out of selfless love may be quite confusing for our modern world, and yet it stands at the heart of the Christian life! “I have come not to be served, but to serve others,” Christ said, “and to give my life as a ransom for others.”

Serving others in a Christ-like manner implies that we must overcome our own self-centeredness and self-love. We must place Jesus’ example of agape love before the world’s understanding of greatness.

Today, we also focus on another very different, yet just as memorable, understanding of Christian greatness. On this 5th Sunday of Lent, we honor St. Mary of Egypt, whose journey of severe and radical repentance leads her to greatness in the Kingdom of God. Throughout our Lenten journey, we have heard much about repentance – from the examples Zaccheus, to the Tax collector and the Pharisee, and to the Prodigal Son, we hear of different expressions of repentance.

St. Mary of Egypt is beloved in the Church because of her radical turn around. In her own testimony, she describes her early life as one of reckless abandon and pleasure, describing herself not simply as a prostitute, but as one who joyfully went from man to man. One day, though, she saw a large crowd of pilgrims boarding a ship going to the Holy Lands for the feast of the Holy Cross. She felt an urge to follow the crowd, and paid her passage on board her ship by offering her body to the sailors, who readily accepted her proposal. Of course, her decision to go to Jerusalem had little to do with her desire to see the holy lands, as much as had to do with following her curiosity.

When she arrived in Jerusalem, she followed the crowds entering the church of the Holy Sepulchre, yet an invisible force stopped her from going inside.  She tried to enter again and again, but each time the same thing happened. Finally, she sat outside the Church, and a sudden sense of deep contrition overwhelmed her. She prayed all night with deep and sincere tears of repentance.  The next morning, she tried entering the Church again, and this time, was allowed to walk in and venerate the life-giving and precious Cross of our Lord. Following this sacred experience, she decided to radically change her way of life.  She left Jerusalem and did not return to Egypt, but instead went into the desert beyond the Jordan River living as an extreme acetic for the next 47 years. Imagine 47 years of living alone, praying, fasting, and seeking out God.

St. Mary’s greatness did not come through humble service, as the Lord challenges us today, but came from another sacred path – that of authentic and sincere repentance. An incredibly sinful woman who radically changes her life, turns back to God, and becomes a pillar of holiness.

Two very different paths of greatness that both lead into the Kingdom of God.  First, Christ calls his followers to a life of humble and loving service to others. Greatness is not about power and privilege, but comes through humbly giving up our desire to control others and serving our neighbor with love and joy. 

Second, even though we all have failed to live lives of absolute selfless service, we still have hope as long as we live lives of continual repentance. St. Mary of Egypt reminds us in the most vivid manner that even the worst of sinners can change their ways and become great in the eyes of God.

May we all continue our journey toward Pascha these last two weeks of Lent by seeking out spiritual greatness – greatness that comes through humble service and greatness that comes through ongoing repentance!