Here is how Mark recorded the incident as translated by Joseph Smith: "And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, why was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace, being afraid; for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who was the greatest among them. Now Jesus sat down, and called the twelve and said unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. And he took a child and sat in the midst of them; and when he had taken the child in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall humble himself like one of these children, and receiveth me, ye shall receive in my name; and whosover shall receive me, receiveth not me only, but him that sent me, even the Father" (JST Mark 9:33-37).
What a wonderful gema glimpse into the human pride and frailties held even by Christ's closest associates. "Who [will be] the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" was their question (Matthew 18:1).
This interchange caused me to stop hard and think, "What is greatness? Who are the greatest men and women that I have ever known? Would they be the greatest in heaven?"
If we were to generate a list of those whom the world considers great, any number of successful scientists, powerful politicians, and captains of industry would spring to mind. But as I thought long and hard about Christ's response to his disciples, only two names, other than family members', came to my mind.
Bill Phelps was second counselor in the bishopric when I was a teenager. He was a humble man, lived in a modest home, and made his living, I think, as a truck driver. I remember Bill coming to our Mia Maid class. He gave each girl a dime and told us always to carry that dime in our shoe for a telephone call (obviously, I'm not in my thirties). If we were ever in trouble we were to telephone him, he said, no matter what the place or time, day or night, and he would come and get us, no questions asked. And we knew he meant it. We knew he loved us and would do anything for us. I carried that dime for years. His offer wasn't mere rhetoric either. More than one of my friends, finding herself in a situation she didn't know how to control, called Bill for help. When Bill died of cancer some years later, his funeral was extraordinary. Mourners filled every room in the entire buildingthe chapel, the halls, and even the lawn outdoors. Many of them weren't even Church members. Bill had quietly touched hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, yet in the world's eyes he was uneducated, rough- edged, unimportant. I consider him probably the greatest man I have ever known.
When I was a young girl, Inez Tracy was my mother's visiting teacher. My mother, struggling in an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic husband, had been inactive for a number of years and was fighting serious depression and bitterness. Inez didn't lecture or patronize her; she just loved her. She became Mother's best friend and was ultimately instrumental in helping her gradually find her way back to church. Inez had a glorious soprano voice and was offered an opportunity to sing with the New York Metropolitan Opera when she was younger. She was good enough she might have had a brilliant career, but she chose instead to marry a schoolteacher and raise four great kids. She used her exceptional talent and love of music to lead church choirs and to teach her choir members, starting at age eight, to read and lead music. She encouraged us to learn to play the piano. Her choirs were angelic. Because she never once complained, none of us knew that she was suffering from a terrible degenerative disease that made it agonizing for her to raise her arms above her waist. She died at a relatively young age. I was only twelve, but to this day I can't sing in a choir or lead music before the congregation without thinking of Inez and the priceless gift of music she gave to me and to everyone else in our ward.
Throughout my professional life, I've had unusual opportunities to meet and interact with some of the most well- known and powerful men and women in the nation and, to some extent, in the world. These are men and women whose faces grace the covers of national news magazines. Yet, isn't it interesting that the two non- family members I identified as the greatest individuals I have ever known have both been dead for decades, were unimportant in the world's eyes, and yet they changed and enriched my life immeasurably?
From the gospel of Luke we read: "And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" What a great question! Whatever the lawyer's intentions, isn't that a question we're all dying to know the answer to?
"He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?" Ever the teacher, Christ turns the question back and asks the student what the scriptures teach.
"And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and will all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live" (Luke 10:25- 28).
The lawyer knew the scriptures and was able to quote perfectly the great commandment. But Christ reminded him that knowledge alone was not enough. "This do, and thou shalt live." It is not enough to know or have a testimony of the law and the truths of the gospel. If we want to gain eternal life or exaltation, we must live the law. We must go and do.
Like so many bright attorneys of my acquaintance, the lawyer couldn't resist one more attempt to get in the last word. "But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?" (Luke 10:29). Christ's response was the wonderful parable of the good Samaritan.
So what should we take from these interchanges? Obviously the Lord doesn't judge things the way the world or even His disciples did. Success, wealth, or power are clearly unimportant in the eyes of the Lord. Even a scholar's knowledge of the scriptures and the commandments is not enough. Membership in this Church, a tithing receipt in your pocket, and even a temple recommend in your purse will not be enough to help you attain eternal life. Christ clearly taught that if we are to attain exaltation and live in the presence of the Father, something far more difficult is required. Humility and service to the least of our brethren is what the Lord asks of us. We need to go and do the Lord's business.
An article in the Church News told the story of a group of religious instructors taking a summer course on the life of the Savior, focusing particularly on the parables. "When the final exam time came . . . the students arrived at the classroom to find a note that the exam would be given in another building across campus. Moreover, the note said, it must be finished within the two- hour time period that was starting almost at that moment.
"The students hurried across campus. On the way they passed a little girl crying over a flat tire on her new bike. An old man hobbled painfully toward the library with a cane in one hand, spilling books from a stack he was trying to manage with the other. On a bench by the Union building sat a shabbily dressed, bearded man with a sign: 'I need money to eat. Please help me.'
"Rushing into the other classroom, the students were met by the professor, who announced they had all flunked the final exam.
"The only true test of whether they understood the Savior's life and teaching, he said, was how they treated people in need."1
Sisters, are we at risk of failing our own final exam? We all have very good reasons why we can't provide service. We are so busy with our families, jobs, church callings. Our means are limited. We are afraid of putting ourselves or our families in harm's way if we reach out to the downtrodden or despised in our own communities. But as I picture myself standing before my Savior, thanking Him for all that He has done for me, my own excuses begin to ring a bit hollow.
Several years ago, I was in Indonesia as part of a humanitarian expedition that was putting in a water system on the island of West Timor. While Indonesia is actually the most populous Muslim nation in the world, this particular village had been visited many years before by Seventh- Day Adventist missionaries who had converted the majority of the people in the area. On Saturday, which was the day they honored as the Sabbath, they asked members of our group if we would like to join them at their church services. Several of us readily agreed, delighted at the opportunity to worship with these truly good and humble people.
A very sweet spirit filled that humble church, constructed of cinder blocks with a corrugated tin roof. Most of the villagers themselves lived in mud brick huts, with roofs of thatched grass. These were very poor people by any standard, scratching out a living by subsistence farming. Near the end of the church service, a basket was passed among the congregation, and out of pockets and from tied handkerchiefs came a cascade of coins and an occasional bill or two. Knowing that few if any of these peasants received any kind of regular income, I was startled by the contributions. Their sole access to cash was typically what they were able to earn carrying their produce to the town, some miles away, to sell by the roadsides. During the closing hymn that followed the offering, I asked the assistant minister, who was kindly translating much of the service for me, whether the contributions went to support the pastor and the running of the congregation. "Oh no," he assured me, "we collect funds to help support an orphanage in Uganda." In my surprise, I blurted out, somewhat rudely, "But these people are so poor!" He just smiled and said, "But the orphans are so much poorer than we are."
In King Benjamin's magnificent sermon on service we read: "And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, . . . O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. . . . feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally" (Mosiah 4:21, 26).
If we, like the Apostles, want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, or if we, like the lawyer, want to gain eternal life, we need to abide by the counsel the Savior gave to Peter, to "feed my sheep" (John 21:16). If we love Him and learn to do, not just know, the things of the kingdom, we will indeed find joy and glory in His service as His true disciples.
1. "Viewpoint," Church News, 1 October 1988, 16; also James E. Faust and James P. Bell, In the Strength of the Lord: The Life and Teachings of James E. Faust (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), 289- 90.