I’m one of those annoying people who loves to point out grammar and spelling errors in public signage. Perhaps you are, too—missing apostrophes, or apostrophes where they shouldn’t be; spellings that result in unfortunate double entendres, or some other meaning from what was likely intended; bizarre non sequiturs, and so on.
I have two favorite street signs that I still remember from the byways of Chicago, where we lived for many years. One of them was from the facade of a liquor store on the city’s northwest side—the name of the store was “Non-Better Liquors.” I’m pretty sure they meant to call the place “None Better,” but left off the “e.” I used to dream up advertising campaigns for this place:
“Non-Better: we’re a pretty good store!”
“Non-Better: not any better than the competition, but hey, we’re not any worse!”
The other instance was around the corner from the second apartment my wife and I lived in after we were married, a small storefront that boasted the name “Decent Convenient Store.” We always thought they could be a little more assertive—it’s great that you’re convenient, we appreciate that, but are you really sure you’re just “Decent?” Shouldn’t you be “Awesome” instead?
Of course, I realize that it’s easy to be a critic, especially for a privileged and over-educated white person like me. And it’s likely that one or both of those Chicago businesses were run by immigrant families for whom English was the second or third or fourth language. So I hope I don’t mention these examples in a mean spirit. A big part of the reason “Non-Better Liquors” and the “Decent Convenient Store” are funny to me—as well as poignant—is that they’ve given the lie to the game that virtually our entire society plays. Due to some easy-to-make spelling and usage errors, they’ve failed at maintaining the pretense to greatness that almost all of us are taught, from early on, that we must maintain.
In our place and time, pretension to greatness is all around us. Each advertisement that comes on the radio or the TV or the screen of your smartphone is a presentation of just how great a particular product is, how much greater it is than any of those others, and how great things will be for you if you choose it. That’s how you play the game.
Each of the candidates in our recent presidential race was in the nearly constant habit of asserting how great things would be if they could secure the White House by means of our votes. Now, of course, there was one for whom greatness was, and is, virtually a trademark refrain. But they all did it; some were simply more subtle than others. That’s how you play the game, whether you’re obvious or subtle.
So that’s the reason “Non-Better Liquors” and “Decent Convenient Store” stick in my memory. They’ve tripped up this game: the truth is, that liquor store probably was just about the same as any other on the northwest side of Chicago, and that convenience store probably was decent, but not much more—a good-enough place to get toilet paper or a bag of chips when you needed it. But most of the rest of the crowd was better at the game of pretended greatness.
And Jesus’ disciples also played this game. In Matthew 18:1, we find them asking, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In other versions of this passage in Mark and Luke, their pretensions are a bit closer to the surface—Jesus actually catches them arguing about which one would be the greatest. It would not be surprising to know that the question they really want answered here in Matthew is, “which of us is the greatest?”
And if I’m honest, this is the same question that I sometimes want answered, in a way that will point to me. I know enough to be less obvious than the disciples, of course; but I wouldn’t mind (OK, I’d be thrilled) if someone else were to single me out as an example of Christian virtue. Then I could get some glory without being accused of pretending to greatness. False modesty is simply another kind of pretension—again, just more subtle.
Jesus’ answer to the question is a kind of parable in miniature: he calls a child to him, and sets him up in the midst of the crowd of disciples. Consider that that child probably had come from the margins of the crowd, out beyond the inner circle of disciples and the groups of those needing healing, the curious and the hangers-on. Children, like women, were on the margins in all sorts of ways in Jesus’ time and place. They had very little power of their own and nothing like what we would call rights today. Because of this, they were vulnerable in many ways.
Jesus brings the child in from the margins to the center, and declares that those who humble themselves like that child will be the greatest in his Reign. Jesus is not here calling the disciples, and by extension us, to the humility of false modesty. Rather, Jesus’ call is to vulnerability. For me, that means being willing to move out of the center—which I occupy by default in many ways—and to the margins.
Entering the Reign of God is a call to humility; to come out of the center; to come alongside the vulnerable at the margins. We cannot make this entrance if we are still playing the game of pretended greatness.
Lord, help me to look to you for true greatness rather than preferring my own. Amen.