A Different Kind of Greatness

When you’re the president of the Unite States, there are more pressures and challenges that anyone could hope to tackle. Then again, there are a few perks as well. If you want a cup of coffee, odds are that there is someone handy to go get you one. Need to get across town? Well, a motorcade with police escort will take care of that right away. Want to buy the latest bestseller or a new shirt? Again, someone will probably take care of that for you.

I realize that more or less has to be the case for the president. He can’t just drive to the coffee shop or the mall anytime he wants to. But I suspect that there are a lot of us—if we’re honest—that would love to have a similar life in some respects. In other words, we’d love to have enough money or prestige or power to be people that can snap our fingers and have others go running to do what we want them to do. In our minds, we equate that kind of life with success, with greatness. And that’s what we often aspire to and work toward.

I want to be careful to say that it’s certainly not wrong to be in a leadership position, to be in charge of people, to cast vision and set agendas, and so forth. God certainly calls people to be in various positions of authority. But I do think it’s worth thinking a little more about how to measure greatness from a biblical perspective. In other words, what makes a person great in God’s eyes?

That leads us to the episode found in Matthew 20:

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said,“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 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.

James and John (Zebedee’s sons), through their mother, are asking Jesus for what amounts to positions of great honor and power when he establishes his kingdom. The indignation of the other disciples is almost certainly due less to the fact that they were upset that anyone would make this selfish request and much more because they also wanted to vie for those positions themselves. Effectively, all twelve disciples are showing their concern for obtaining prestige and influence.

So how does Jesus respond to all of this?

First he addresses James and John. After frankly telling them that they don’t understand what they’re asking, he immediately follows with a question of his own: can you drink the cup that I’m going to drink? Drinking from a cup is actually a common biblical image for experiencing God’s wrath. Jesus is here alluding to the fact that his place at the head of his kingdom is tied together in some way with undergoing God’s punishment for the sins of his people. The point of the question is then something like this: “You who want to reign with me, are you willing to suffer like me?”

Then to the entire group of disciples he begins what he says by talking about the way things work in the Gentile world. And here’s something I think is interesting: the word that Jesus uses that we have translated as “rulers” literally means “those who have a high station in a ruling capacity”—in other words, people toward the top of the ladder. And the word we have translated as “high officials” literally means “great ones.”

Taking that into account, here’s what I think Jesus is getting at. He’s not saying it’s a bad thing to exercise authority (“lord it over them” may not be the best translation in v. 25). We can see that in any number of passages in the Bible. In fact, Jesus himself does that. What he seems to be saying is that, in the minds of these people, being someone of high standing or greatness is associated with the ability to have others carry out your will. And again, we might find that association pretty familiar in our own culture and experience.

But, Jesus says that’s not the way it works in his kingdom, among his followers. Rather, the thing that defines greatness is service. You may have all the power and authority a person can hope to have, but that’s not greatness. Rather, if you want to be great, you’ll be a servant. And if you want to be first, you’ll be a slave.

Understanding that this teaching is completely counterintuitive to the disciples’ (and our) normal way of thinking, Jesus supports it with his own example. Verse 28 reads, “…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.”

Not long ago, it was popular to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Frankly, that’s sometimes not the best question to ask when thinking about our own lives. After all, some of the things Jesus did are beyond our power or our calling. However, in other situations, it’s exactly what we need to be thinking about. And in this passage we clearly have an instance where Jesus is saying to imitate him. To paraphrase: Do you really want to be great? Then be a servant, or even lower than a servant, be a slave, just like the Son of Man. In other words, follow my example…for even though I’m a king—the king—I didn’t come to be served. I came to serve. And my service is to give my life to pay the penalty for my people’s sins, so they can be free to enjoy a restored relationship with God and eternal life with him.

That’s the example we’re called to follow. Not to die on the cross like Jesus did (again—what would Jesus do can’t apply to us there). But we are called to spend our lives serving, sometimes in very costly ways.

Yes, that’s no small challenge. That’s why it’s helpful to remember at least two more things. First, in living a life of service, not only will we fulfill God’s command that we love our neighbor, but we’ll also be consistently demonstrating a fundamental truth of the gospel: that our Lord came to give his life for others. Second, the world may not always see and recognize the greatness that comes from service. But God does. And his reward is certainly worth it.

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