Least Among Men, Close to God

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Johannes Vermeer - Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

As Jesus calls his first disciples, he makes an astounding statement about Nathanael—some of his highest recorded praise in Scripture: “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’” (John 1:47).

Of the centurion with the paralyzed servant, Jesus marvels that he hasn’t found faith like his in all of Israel (Matt 8:10). He commends Mary for choosing the better portion of being with him (Luke 10:42).

But on the whole, seeing into the heart of man, Jesus knows and lovingly confronts our sin. So for him to call Nathanael a true Israelite, one in whom there is no deceit, is high praise indeed. Jesus is not calling Nathaniel sinless, but he’s calling him faithful. We should aspire to be people whom Jesus commends, because his praise is worth everything, unlike human praise which is temporarily gratifying but limp and lifeless.

As one of Christ’s redeemed, I yet feel the gap between myself and the ones whom Jesus praises. I feel myself to be the least of the saints. What does it mean to be least in the Kingdom? And greatest? Is the greatest the one who gets to sit closest to Jesus?

Jesus’ disciples ask this same question. They argue with one another about who is the greatest (Mark 9:34). Salome, the mother of James and John, asks for her sons to sit at his right hand and left hand in his coming kingdom (Matt 20:21). The other ten disciples are angered by this ambition because in their flesh they all want to be the greatest. The rest of us followers of Christ can relate.

But Jesus tells them that anyone who wants to be great must be the least, the last, and the servant of all. It puts a crimp in our plans, doesn’t it? So our minds cavort in acrobatics trying to figure out how to arrange to be the least so we can be the greatest. It doesn’t work; it only births sinuous iterations of pride. What can we focus on? Where should we lead our longings?

Can we choose closeness to Jesus?

Mary does. Jesus praises her for the wisdom of choosing the “good portion” (Luke 10:42), and promises that it will not be taken from her. Her good portion is sitting at his feet. Just that. Sitting at his feet, being near to him, listening to him.

I think we’ve all longed, at some point, to have been there to see and hear and touch Jesus in the flesh. How life-changing! What a boon to our faith! But he was limited in his humanity—he couldn’t go to everyone, and the ones who loved him couldn’t have him all the time. When he appears to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, she wants to cling to him but cannot, because he has not yet ascended to his Father (John 20:16-17).

Jesus urges his disciples to be glad he is leaving—not to mourn—because he will send the Comforter (John 16:6-7). This Helper will be with us forever, and we will know him, because he dwells with us and will be in us (John 14:16-17). What Jesus in the flesh could not do in the first century, the Holy Spirit does while we are yet to be glorified: he is always with us, dwelling in us. What we in the twenty-first century cannot bodily expect from Jesus before his return, we find fulfilled in the Holy Spirit. We can be very close to God, now and forever.

What Mary has chosen, we are to choose. Let the pursuit of greatness be left behind like dust on the wind. Be content to be least in the Kingdom. Sit at Jesus’s feet and be close to him.

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