Mark 10:35-45 NIV
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I remember when I was first appointed as a chaplain in the Australian Army. My introduction to army life was a Direct Entry Officers Course at Randwick Barracks. There were about 30 of us. We’d all been commissioned as Direct Entry Officers on the basis of our professional training and experience, recruited to practice our professions within the army environment. But we also had to learn how to be and act like soldiers – or as close to it as clergyman, health professionals, dentists and lawyers could be.
My strongest memory of it was the address given to us by the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 2nd Military District Head Quarters, who was in charge of the process of making us look like soldiers. Like all RSMs he was a fearsome character, immaculately turned out and spoke with the sort of authority that immediately made you stand up straight and listen.
In terms of the military hierarchy, as a warrant officer class 1 he was 3 steps below us in status, because we all wore captains’ rank. But he left us in no doubt as to who was in charge. He fixed his steely gaze upon us and said: ‘Because you gentlemen have received the Queen’s Commission, I will call you Sir. And because I am the Course Regimental Sergeant Major, you will call me Sir. The only difference is you will mean it!’ And we did!
Well, greatness in this world takes many forms, but it is always characterized by power and authority. But in our reading today Jesus said: ‘You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In these words, Jesus turns the values of this world upside down and says that the way this world operates is not the way it’s to be in His kingdom.
This teaching came as a result of something our world would probably think of as quite acceptable and even admirable. James and John, asked Jesus to make them his chief aides when he came into his kingdom. In other words, they wanted to get to the top, and in our society we admire that sort of ambition.
Jesus’ response was to tell them they didn’t know what they were asking. He asked them if they were prepared to go through what he was about to go through, and they said yes. But I really don’t think they understood that meant becoming a martyr. However, as it happened, one of them, James, did, and become the first of the Apostles to be martyred.
Anyway, this really annoyed the other disciples when they heard about it – they didn’t want James and John getting promoted over their heads. They had ambitions too. It was then that Jesus taught them that greatness in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with status but has everything to do with service. ‘If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom,’ he said. ‘Learn to be the servant of all.’ The mark of true greatness, in God’s sight, is not status, it’s service.
I don’t think that Jesus was trying to abolish ambition. Rather he was refocusing it. Godly ambition is not an ambition to be over people, but an ambition to serve people. Godly ambition is the desire to be all God wants us to be and do. That’s what Jesus taught and that’s what he practiced. ‘Even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many,’ he said. ‘The servant is not greater than the master.’ If that’s the attitude he had, it should also be ours.
Sadly, it isn’t always like that in the church. In fact, the organized church usually tends to copy the society around it and adopt its mores of status and power as the things that drive its leaders. The medieval church and the hierarchical churches of today were and still are modelled on structures that reflected feudal monarchies. Christendom divided the world into the sacred and the secular, with popes, patriarchs, archbishops and bishops being the sacred equivalents of secular emperors, monarchs and princes.
Protestantism rejected all that, but soon set up its own leadership structures, which sometimes became just as authoritative and status conscious as the ones they replaced. Even in the more independent style churches of today, there is a growing trend towards the style of the corporate world, with terms like Senior Minister that denote chief executive officer status.
This is not a problem if the leaders in question fulfil their tasks in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was not against leadership and the Bible is quite clear that God calls some to be leaders in His Church.But it’s a different style of leadership. The term we use for it is servant leadership - the only type of leadership that Jesus accepts for His Church. It has nothing to do with status, it’s all about service.
But this concept doesn’t always sit well with the way we tend to think. It seems the whole world is looking for dynamic, charismatic leaders. The problem is that throughout history such people have often turned out to be worse than the problems they were supposed to fix.The past century saw some of the worst examples in people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung.
But compare them with Gandhi, who led India, the world’s largest democracy, to independence. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propagandist, dismissed Mahatma Gandhi as a fool and a fanatic, certain that Gandhi could never bring about independence for India following a path of peaceful revolution. Yet as history played itself out, India won her independence peacefully while the Nazi military machine was destroyed. What Goebbels regarded as weakness actually turned out to be strength, and what he thought of as strength turned out to be weakness.
It reminds me of the scripture that says: ‘The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.’ Gandhi was not a Christian, but he was profoundly influenced by Christ’s teaching – especially His teaching about true greatness being in service not in status. He also said the reason why he never became a Christian was because he’d never met a Christian who ever took Jesus’ words seriously.
It’s an indictment of the way the world operates and the way the Church sometimes does too. We love our titles and badges of status. But Jesus had no time for all that. The only thing that counts in His Kingdom, he said, is service.
‘If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom,’ Jesus said. ‘Learn to be the servant of all.’ The mark of true greatness, in God’s sight, is not pride in status, but an attitude of service. I came across a good example of this recently. Some years ago, St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City was seeking a new president.
Over 100 people applied for the position and the search committee narrowed the list to five eminently qualified applicants. Then somebody came up with a brilliant idea. They decided to send someone to each of the institutions where the finalists worked, and they asked the janitors at each place what they thought of the man wanting to be president. The outcome was that William MacElvaney got the job because, in addition to his impressive credentials, a humble janitor said that he treated everyone – janitors and governors – as VIPs.
So, what does this mean for us – even those of us who don’t expect ever to be appointed to positions of authority and status? It means a complete and thorough purging of the attitudes that drive this world and all its institutions whether they be national government, business or even a fellowship group in the church.
It means realising that Jesus sees our self-promoting ways, our jockeying for position, our burning need for recognition not as something to be admired, but rather as something to be pitied. It reflects our emotional and spiritual immaturity – our inability to feel comfortable with our true selves and allow those true inner selves to express themselves naturally in loving and serving others. It is essentially an attitude that drives the way we live and act. And it reveals itself most powerfully in the way we act towards those whose lowly status means they can’t benefit us in return.
The Apostle Paul summed it up in these words from Philippians:‘Think of yourselves the way Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all.
When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a servant.’ And His word to us is simply ‘Now Follow me.’