“Some are born great, some become great and some have greatness thrust upon them”.
That’s probably a familiar quote which came to mind straightaway when I read today’s Gospel reading. Here are the disciples, who were definitely not born great – they are ordinary fishermen, tax collectors, peasant farmers, caught up in the story of an extraordinary man, Jesus. They see the crowds flock to him and they start to entertain the thought that perhaps, if not born great they might at least become great.
“Let us sit at your right and left hands when you come into your kingdom,” they say. Their minds are full of grand visions of gold thrones and fine robes. But it’s not going to be like that, says Jesus. The only greatness they will find by following Jesus will be one like his, a life service that will lead for many of them to a painful death, as it does for him. The cross is Jesus throne, and the only crown is made of thorns. If this is greatness, it isn’t the sort any sensible person would choose if they had an alternative. It will definitely be thrust upon them. Perhaps greatness is best avoided, we think, reading this?
It is interesting to reflect on where that quote actually comes from. “Some are born great…” It is from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act 2, scene 5), from a letter read by Malvolio, the rather priggish head-servant in the household of Lady Olivia. He is very strait-laced, and the other servants decide to play a practical joke on him. They arrange for him to find a letter, apparently from his employer, Lady Olivia, whom he is secretly in love with. The letter seems to indicate that she returns his feelings. It is actually a forgery, of course, but he is taken in. The letter tells him to dress and act in some rather bizarre ways as a demonstration of his love, and he goes along with it, putting on ridiculous, cross-gartered yellow stockings and generally making a fool of himself. And if it feels to him too good to be true that such a fine lady could love him, the letter urges him to “be not afraid of greatness – some are born great, some become great and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Of course in this case, it is all a joke, one which leads to Malvolio’s downfall, but it is a cruel joke, one with an edge to it, and Shakespeare means us to notice that. In a way Malvolio stands for that part of all us which is a bit ambivalent about ourselves, aware of our dreams – perhaps very worthwhile ones – but also afraid that if we give voice to them or act to try to achieve them we too will be slapped down, exposed, ridiculed. Who do we think we are? “Be not afraid of greatness…” says the letter, but I suspect that most of us are. Sometimes that leads to us shrinking from some task that we are actually being called to do, a task we have the gifts for, if only we dared use them. “I couldn’t possibly…” we say with false humility. Sometimes, though, our lack of self-confidence can lead to us behaving in quite the opposite way, throwing our weight around or manipulating others, like little Napoleons on our own personal mission of conquest. It is as if we are shouting very loudly, because we don’t really believe, deep down, that we have anything to say which anyone would really want to hear if we didn’t force it on them. The symptoms might seem different, but the disease is the same. Either extreme – false modesty or arrogance – reflects the fact that we haven’t really learned the most important truth about ourselves, that we are made –each one of us - in the image of God, called to his service, given a space in the world and a unique task that is our own to fulfil.
The truth which this Gospel passage underlines is that God does indeed call each of us to “become great”, not in the sense of lording it over others, but by being rooted and grounded in God, confident in using the gifts he has given us for the good of others. That is a greatness we should indeed not be afraid of.