What is the Greatest?

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There is a peculiar line in Sunday’s gospel lesson that I just can’t wrap my mind around in the NRSV. As Jesus is talking about his sheep that no one and nothing can snatch away from him, he says, “What my Father has given me is greater than all else…”  I found this to be an interesting turn of phrase, so I set out to look more deeply at the word translated as “what”.  I found that the NRSV seems to radically miss the point on this one.  The focus of Jesus’ attention here seems not to be the sheep that his Father has given him, but the Father himself.

  • … my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else (NLT)
  • My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all (NIV)

In dealing with this word “what,” Robertson suggests “Which” or a more colloquial, “As for my Father.”  He goes on to describe some Greek grammar that is beyond even my level of nerdery, ending with “The greatness of the Father, not of the flock, is the ground of the safety of the flock. Hence the conclusion that ‘no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.'”

I’m not certain why the NRSV chose to translate this sentence the way they did.  It would seem odd, in a teaching that is so focused on the relationship of Jesus as shepherd and his disciples as sheep that he would in turn call the sheep “greater than all else.”  As we’ve seen this week, sheep are vulnerable, wandering, and seemingly dimwitted.  It isn’t the result of their own meandering that they arrive at the promised land, but thanks to the watching eye and careful attention of the shepherd to whom the sheep are given by the Father.

Thanks be to God that the Father is, in fact, the greatest.  If it were left up to me and my greatness, as Martin Luther says, “it would all be for naught.”

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