In our gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day James and John go to Jesus with a request. They ask if they can sit with him, one on his right, the other on his left, in his glory, not realizing that criminals will soon be at his right and his left in his death. Now we should remember that together with Peter, the two disciples are Jesus’ closest confidantes. It is fair to assume that their request is motivated by a desire for personal closeness with Jesus, a desire we should also have. But this is not the case. They want to share in his power and authority.
It turns out that their request is as blind as it is bold. Jesus asks them if they can drink the cup that he is about to drink, and if they can submit to the baptism that he is about to undergo. They mistakenly translate “cup” and “baptism” as symbols of a coronation ceremony where they will be seated in the places of highest honor alongside Jesus. But the cup to which Jesus is referring is a metaphor for suffering. And the baptism to which Jesus is referring is a baptism of blood, which he must undergo in his own death on the cross.
If that is the price to pay for the privilege, then it seems that they have sufficient cause to reconsider. But evidently they are not easily discouraged. They reply they are willing and able to share in Jesus’ destiny. But then Jesus tells them that what they are asking is not for him to grant. Meanwhile the rest of the disciples make it known they are listening to this exchange, and are indignant with the two.
We may sympathize with them. We can understand their anger. After all, if I want to be first, if I want to be greater, that implies that you have to be second at best, you have to be lesser. The power grab is a zero sum game. If there’s going to be winners, there’s also going to have to be losers. And James and John presume they should belong to the first group.
Again, we can understand their anger at these two. But before we take sides with them against James and John, let us take a step back and ask: What is at the root of this desire for power? In fact, it is rooted in basic and legitimate needs.
Perhaps most basic is the need for recognition. We need to be noticed; we need others to pay attention to us; we need them to give us their approval. The fear that we will be ignored, overlooked, neglected or dismissed is a primal one. We have to make our presence known. We need our opinions and perspectives to be taken seriously. Consider the young women who posts countless pictures of themselves on their Instagram accounts. Consider the biographies of great leaders who made their mark on history. So many of them struggled in obscurity at the beginning of their life’s course, which they overcame to get recognized.
Related to this need is that for influence. We feel a deep need to make a contribution. We need what we do to count for something. We need to know that what we do is meaningful. This too motivates us to become someone, to carve out a space for ourselves in the world.
We can all agree that these needs are basic and legitimate. They are rooted in our very nature. Therefore, it is not the needs themselves that are at issue here. Rather, it is what we do to get those needs met. Or rather, even more to the point, it is who we go to to get those needs met.
It certainly seems that the pursuit and exercise of power stem from these legitimate and basic needs. If I am elevated to high position, how can I not be recognized? And if I am to exercise influence, what better place can there be than the highest position possible?
Jesus interrupts the quarreling of the disciples to teach them a lesson about precisely these things. He presents his lesson by drawing a contrast. The contrast is that between power as it is pursued and exercised in the world as we know it and the power that Jesus proposes to his disciples as an alternative.
We know that a person who seeks power believes he has the right to make demands of others, and expects them to submit to these demands. He wants others to recognize his authority. But when he puts himself forward, when he sees himself as entitled to this authority, he will invariably provoke opposition. “Who appointed you ruler over us?” No doubt this was the protest of the ten disciples against the two.
But people in power know that power is always contested. They know they have to fight against others to maintain their power. That in fact is why they do fight. They wage this fight on two fronts. They wage it relative to those subjected to them. They have always to demonstrate their competence to their subjects when their power is legitimate, or show of strength when it is not. In either case, they have to prove they are capable of wielding power over us.
In this connection, Jesus draws attention to the manner in which the rulers of the Gentiles exercise their authority. In the original language there are two different verbs used. They mean more or less the same thing, but the noteworthy thing is that to each is attached a prefix.
The prefix adds to the verbs the sense of an authority that is wielded coercively or oppressively. Literally, it reads: the rulers of the Gentiles exercise downward control over their subjects. And, in turn, their superiors exert authority downwards over them.
But those who have power not only have to exert it downwards; they also have to exert it sideways. That is, to maintain their power they have also to wage a fight against their rivals. Their rivals are always ready to take their power from them. When they see chinks in the armor, they attack; when they see weaknesses, they exploit them. They do all they can to unseat those who have power.
We have already said that the craving for power stems from basic and legitimate needs. But at this point we have to ask: does the attainment of power in the sense we have been considering satisfy the craving? Does it meet those needs?
Jesus offers an alternative. True greatness lies in service, in turning towards others and concerning oneself with their needs. Let us hasten to add here that Jesus does not imagine a utopia in which there is no rule. Rather he acknowledges the necessity of greater and lesser positions, of command and obedience. But he inverts the hierarchy. That is, he turns it upside down. It is no longer the ones at the top who compel the others to obey, but rather the ones who act in the interest of others and thus reflect something of God’s caring rule.
Did you catch that? There is no reason to fear God’s rule or Christ’s lordship. God is not out to crush us. His rule is always for us and with us.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ teaching seems like a hard sell. After all, servants do not receive recognition; they do not make lasting contributions. But things look otherwise when we return to the point at issue. A few moments ago, we asked: granted these are basic and legitimate needs, but where do we go to satisfy them. Or rather, more to the point, to whom do we go?
For the disciple of Jesus, the need for recognition has already been met. God knows us, even to the point of knowing the number of the hairs on our head. And when we are convinced of this truth, when our faith is strong enough that it never leaves our awareness, then we can be at rest. We are set free from the compulsion to assert ourselves, to prove ourselves in the eyes of others. Secure in our knowledge of God, or rather, in God’s knowledge of us, we can make ourselves wholly and unguardedly available to the other, since he can longer be a threat to us and to our position.
Likewise with the need to make a contribution. The disciple of Jesus knows this need has already been met. We are convinced that acts of service matter, because they are patterned after the acts of the Son of God himself, who didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. We know that with them we make a lasting contribution, one that extends into the life to come.
Of course, the ideal of service can be abused. Tyrants have legitimated their rule by claiming that they are servants of the people. The worst crimes in history have been perpetrated by those who alleged that they were serving a higher cause. Not even the churches have been immune from the temptation of abusing power in the name of “serving” others.
But Jesus himself is the criterion of correct serving, not as the authoritative ruler in the sense in which the world understands the term, but as the one who lays down his life for others. His authority consists in the fact that he is the man for others, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s memorable phrase.
Jesus demands that this service should be the norm for those who follow him. Indeed, for Jesus the only great or first person is the one who is wholly oriented to the needs of the other. The power based on coercion corrupts those who hold it. But the willingness to serve qualifies a person for exercising power.
Author Chelsea Harmon writes that James and John, by seeking greatness, were hoping to be put in a position where they could look down on others—whether they meant to abuse that position or not. But time and time again, Jesus speaks of reversals. His invitation here is not to be in a place of power from which to look down, but to be the shoulders on which others can stand to look up. His invitation is to be the outstretched arm that enables someone on the fringes to be brought into the center, to be the person who is happy to be a little smaller so that others can join in.
As disciples of Jesus, we have been set free from the compulsion to assert ourselves, from the urge to dominate. We have been blessed to serve one another, as Harmon has so eloquently described. Let us conclude with an illustration of this life of service by relating the following story
A holy man was having a conversation with God one day and said, ‘ God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.’ God led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man’s mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms. Each person was able to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, ‘You have just seen Hell.’
Then they went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth water.
The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, ‘I don’t understand.’ It is simple,’ said God. ‘It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other, while those in hell look only to their own interests.’