Two Kinds of Greatness

From “On People Who Do ‘Great Things,'” by Walter Brueggemann

“[T]he great thing of a king is not like the great thing of the prophet; it is more mundane, more material, seemingly more routine. But he does it. …

“Lean resources make for uncommon transformative power.”


One kind of great deed is to give something from plenty. This is magnanimity — the gift of a king. The king does not have to give from what he has, but he can; and, when he deigns to give trivially from his vast holdings, it can mean the world to the recipient.

The other kind is to create something from nothing, to create “enough” where there was not before. Think of the loaves and the fishes: from the meagerest of resources, vast crowds are somehow fed — with leftovers.

As Brueggeman points out in his other work (e.g. The Prophetic Imagination), kings and their “royal consciousness” are the ur-symbols of the status quo. Their rule is quite simply the way things are; every so often, since they control more stuff than anyone else, they choose to work the secular miracle of the status quo ante; that is, they can restore someone’s stuff.

That can indeed be quite a gift, but it is never a transformation in the way things work. A bank error in your favor is a boon to you but doesn’t put the bank out of business. Creating something from nothing, on the other hand, is a generative power that can change the status of things. It is not magnanimity, but a miracle.

Giving from what we have can alleviate someone else’s hardship (or salve our own consciences), but it does not transform the relationship between people. It maintains the status quo. Creating something, though — with presence rather than presents, time and attention rather than stuff — now, that might have uncommon transformative power.