Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

1 Kings 2:10-24+Psalm 127+(Revelation 4:2-11)+Luke 22:24-30

Who’s the greatest? Whether it’s James and John asking the question or James and John’s mother asking the question, or just some unnamed group of disciples, they just can’t seem to help themselves. In Luke’s gospel, it happens not once, but twice, and the one we hear today is right near the very end of Jesus’s earthly life.

Jesus has just instituted the last supper. He tells them that the bread is his body, and the wine is his blood. ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (22:21). As soon as those words leave his mouth, they are followed with the accusation, “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ (22:21-22). The disciples were probably stunned by that. Who would be so stupid as to betray our friend just when we are getting ready to turn this world upside down?

So, this dispute about who is greatest is part of the “who would betray Jesus” conversation. Clearly Judas would not have been part of that because he knew. And he knew that Jesus knew. And the other eleven, knowing that they didn’t do it, are going to argue for how great they are. The last time they did that in Luke’s gospel, Jesus set a child next to him and said, “You want to see great. This right here is great, and unless you become like this, unless you welcome those like this, you will never truly know what God is all about” (9:48).

Adonijah is also looking for greatness, but of a different kind. It’s easy to get lost in all the machinations of those seeking power in the books of Samuel and Kings, but in this case, I am happy to say that Bathsheba succeeded in getting what she wanted.

When David was old and frail, his oldest remaining son, Adonijah, declared himself king and started to surround himself with all the trappings of royalty. Bathsheba got wind of this and consulted with Nathan the prophet. Together they devised a plan to make sure Solomon inherited the throne. Now, there is no record of David promising that Solomon would be his heir, but that did not stop Bathsheba and Nathan from convincing him otherwise. And so it was that Solomon was to become king.

But what of this woman, Abishag the Shunammite? Again, when David’s health was failing, the text tells us that he could not keep warm so they found this beautiful young girl to keep him warm, although we are assured that he did not “know her” in the biblical sense. So when Adonijah asks that she be given to him, he is scheming to take the last woman who belonged to his father, perhaps impregnate her and claim the child was David’s and thereby wrest the throne from Solomon. It’s like a giant soap opera.

Solomon, later known for his wisdom, recognizes this scheme, and even though he had promised Adonijah that he could live as long as he recognized that Solomon was king and proved himself worthy, apparently asking for Abishag was not worthy. It was a threat, and Solomon dispatched him.

We will hear more about Solomon in the coming weeks, but these tales of the kings of Israel that follow certainly reflect Lord Acton’s dictum

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.[1]

Nineteen centuries before Lord Acton, Jesus understood this lust for power and the ills that come with it. He repeatedly commends the weak and powerless, the ones who do not seek greatness or power. They get the first seat at the table. They get the seat of honor. Like the king who throws the banquet and the wealthy and privileged are too busy to show up, it’s all the street people and the sick, the widows and the children who get to come to the feast.

We see a lot of longing for power and authority here in the waning days of the election cycle. Who’s the greatest among us, they seem to ask? I think Jesus would say that the greatest are the ones who put the last first, who seek and serve Christ in all people, who love their neighbor and welcome the stranger and the outcast.

Questions about power and greatness are as old as humankind. One of these days I pray that we will figure out what true greatness looks like.


[1] https://www.acton.org/research/lord-acton-quote-archive

ASEPSermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas