And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.…
The desire for distinction is one of the radical principles of our nature; never so crucified and buried but that, in unexpected ways and moments, it may revive, and rise again in power. In the world we find it, and in the Church. Charles V. could lay off the imperial purple, but could not so easily dispossess himself of the imperial will. Simon Stylites, on his pillar in the Lybian desert, was as willing to draw crowds out after him as any most lordly Bishop of Alexandria. The decrepit anchorite, in spite of his austerities, was still a man; his stomach hungry for bread, his heart hungry for applause. This subtle passion is strongest in the middle and more athletic period of life. It comes in between the love of pleasure, which besets our youth, and the love of gain, which besets our age. Though liable to desperate abuse, this passion, like every other, was benevolently given. If it causes wars, and builds up oppressive institutions, poisoning the hearts and cursing the lives of men, it is likewise one of the sharpest spurs to honourable toil, inspires the grandest achievements, and strikes its deepest roots into the deepest natures. It is, then, not to be fought against, as an enemy to virtue, but drawn into service rather, as an ally.
I. TRUE GREATNESS IS NOT INDICATED EITHER BY A CONSPICUOUS POSITION, OR THE BUZZ OF POPULAR APPLAUSE. Exalted stations add nothing to human stature. A great reputation may chance to balloon a very little man.
II. TRUE GREATNESS IS NOT INDICATED INFALLIBLY EVEN BY THE PRESENCE OF GREAT ABILITIES, OR GREAT ACQUISITIONS. Hero-worship is a perpetual fact in history. Mankind are sadly prone to be fascinated by mere ability, or what is so esteemed, irrespective of its exercise; by mere learning, irrespective of its aims and uses. We encounter this idolatry in every walk of life. Much lamentation is poured out over what is called dormant power — Cromwells that lead no armies, Newtons that write no "Principia," Miltons that build no lofty rhymes. Men are named in every circle, of whom it is remarked that they are possessed of great abilities, if they would only exercise them; or possessed of great learning, if they would only use it. No doubt there is such a thing as having one's talent, a real talent, laid up in a napkin. But there is probably much less of waste in this way than is commonly supposed. There is a meaning, perhaps, in that feature of the Gospel parable, which represents the idle talent as being a solitary and single one; a talent in some one direction, as that of a mere chemist, mathematician, linguist, or logician. Ability of this sort, thus partial, limited, and narrow, may doubtless be content to slumber, or exercise itself only in trifling. But true greatness cannot justly be predicated of any such ability. Real power has fulness and variety. It is not narrow like lightning, but broad like light. The man who truly and worthily excels in any one line of endeavour, might also, under a change of circumstances, have excelled in some other line. He who eight times led conquering legions into Gaul, could also write matchless commentaries describing their exploits. He who fought at Marengo and Austerlitz, could also build Alpine roads and construct the Code Napoleon. He who sang "Paradise Lost," could also pen ablest state papers.
III. THE IDEAL AND MEASURE OF GREATNESS, AS SET BEFORE US BY CHRIST HIMSELF, CONSISTS IN USEFULNESS. He who does the greatest amount of good in this world is the greatest man. This is the Christian sentiment. It is also at bottom the universal sentiment. The Titans of ancient fable, who piled mountains together, and stormed the heavens, were not great, only huge. Hercules was great by virtue of the twelve great labours which he performed. Grecian art, faultless as it was, failed of being great by being sensual. Hindoo generals are not great leaders, for, though they wield vast masses of men, they wield them to little or no purpose. He is not great, who merely wastes the nations; only he is great who saves and serves them. This rule, which the historic judgment of the world thus proceeds upon, is more an instinct than a principle. Christianity lays it down with emphasis as the highest law. According to this law, he only is great of heart who floods the world with a great affection. He only is great of mind who stirs the world with great thoughts. He only is great of will who does something to shape the world to a great career. And he is greatest who does the most of all these things, and does them best. As to the particular sphere in which a man shall lay out the labour of his life, this must b.e determined by a wise regard to individual tastes, talents, and circumstances. Each must choose for himself the employment and sphere best suited to his gifts. But all must choose with one heart, one purpose, in the fear of God, and under the light of eternal realities.
IV. THE MOTIVES TO THE ADOPTION OF SUCH A RULE OF LIFE ARE OBVIOUS AND STRONG.
1. It is the key to happiness. God is infinitely happy in His boundless beneficence. Christ was happy in giving Himself up a sacrifice for the world. In all ages, the happiest of men have been the busiest and most beneficent.
2. It enhances power; relative power and actual power. He who works for God and man, with the least of solicitude about himself, has all the forces of Providence working with him. All these forces are powerful, so is he; and their triumph is his triumph. Moreover, the benevolent affections are the best stimulants of the intellect, the best allies and energizers of the will. Henry Martyn was twice the man for going to Persia that he would have been had he remained in England; and consequently has twice the fame. It is by dying that we live. It is only the good and the self-denying who rule us from their urns.
3. It is noble. Selfishness is pitiful and paltry.
(R. D. Hitchcock, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.