First and Last.
“Grant,” requested the woman kneeling before Jesus, “that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” It was a bold request. Since the favour was not for herself surely she was justified in making her request known. Her sons, James and John, were two of Jesus’ closest companions. It was only reasonable they should reign with Jesus when He came into His glorious rule as Messiah. A mother knows best.
When the other ten disciples got wind of the discussion, we’re told, “they were indignant.” Why? Did they think it was an impertinent and audacious request to make of the Master? Or were they perturbed because they hadn’t thought to ask first? If roles of power were being handed out, perhaps, they worried, they were at the back of the line.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” explained Jesus in a tone that immediately caught His followers’ attention. They had begun to bicker in twos and threes over who had the best leadership potential. “Their high officials,” He continued, “exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The murmuring group became silent. Second to Jesus’ own prophesied death, this may have been the worst news the disciples had heard from this enigmatic man. Whoever wants to become great must be a servant, even a slave? This was not what they wanted to hear. What about power? What about being on the winning team? Let’s face it: we all want to make the most of the opportunity of our lives. What Jesus was suggesting sounded ludicrous then, and continues to irk us now, if we are honest enough to admit it. We don’t want to be anyone’s servant.
Jesus was describing a character trait that God not only values but also is mandatory in His economy. Jesus was modeling it, and every serious follower of His must accept and embrace it if we want to get on with Him. We must develop a heart and hands that serve others. Somehow it is easier to serve God than to serve other people. He deserves it, we reason, but other people do not. It’s an oxymoron; rather than focusing on achieving our own goals, we are called to assist others in theirs. We are being asked to set aside our own hopes and dreams to lift up others at our expense. It’s unthinkable!
Yet according to Jesus, servanthood is the key character trait for true greatness. God knows it takes this mindset and application to make us truly human. In lifting up others we somehow participate in fulfilling our God-given destiny. By giving up earthly power we position ourselves for eternal significance. .
It’s a hard lesson for those of us who think we deserve better. It is for me. There is something in each of us that wants the kind of greatness that rules, that has autonomy over oneself at least and perhaps some authority over others. That was what Friedrich Nietzsche envisioned in his Ubermuensch philosophy. The online Urban Dictionary states, “The Ubermuensch is an independent individual who has the power to banish herd instincts from his mind….The Ubermuensch is the opposite of Jesus Christ.” How true.
In Matthew 20, just before describing the servanthood of His followers, Jesus prophesied his own imminent path to greatness.
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” He explained, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” This was the calling by which Jesus was living, by which He would die, and by which He would be raised to His right place of eternal greatness.
While we are not called to die for the ransom of humanity nor to rise to Christ’s seat of honour, our calling is not dissimilar. Jesus explains we must, in a way, die each day of our lives: We must die to selfishness; we must reject “lording it” over anyone in a way that grasps power; we must find the joy in being last in line rather than in grasping for first and let God take care of the eternal rewards. This is true greatness. Ready to begin?
(Photo Credit: [[File:Feet washing, India, 1963 (16379126443).jpg|thumb|Feet washing, India, 1963 (16379126443)]]Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs, 1898-1967. IV-10-007.2 Box 4 Folder 14. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.)