“When the ten disciples heard this, they began to be indignant with James and John. Jesus called them over and said to them, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
In my household, there is a simple rule that regulates our interactions with our three boys. Perhaps you have a similar, if unwritten and even unspoken, rule in your own household. If one child gets something, the others must be treated in similar fashion. If one child gets a snack before bed, all three need a snack before bed. It wouldn’t matter if the other two had finished eating dinner only moments before. They are suddenly starving and couldn’t possibly be expected to make it to breakfast without one more bite of food. There’s another rule at play as well: If mom and dad put you in charge, you get to act like you’re in charge. Now, we didn’t make up these rules. They came part and parcel with the parenting gig. I suspect they came with your own gig too. The reason for that is simple: These rules are how people naturally think and interact with one another. The disciples put both rules on display here…and Jesus explains (again) that this isn’t how the kingdom of God works. Let’s talk about it.
We chuckled together yesterday at the incredible tone-deaf request James and John made of Jesus as they were getting near Jerusalem. The pair had been a part of all of His recent conversations with the disciples and the crowds. They had heard Him talk about the importance of humility and the total dependence we need to have on God for our salvation. So, naturally, they thought it was the right time to ask for positions of power and influence in His kingdom when it was finally revealed. You know Jesus had to be shaking His head while secretly wanting to find a wall to bang it on a few times.
Well, when the rest of the disciples found out about their request, they all cried out with a single voice the refrain that everyone joins in on when it looks like someone might get something they aren’t also going to get: “That’s not fair!” How dare they ask for that kind of a position in the Master’s kingdom without first consulting us. Didn’t they remember our conversation about who was the greatest from a few weeks ago? It was clearly decided that we didn’t have an answer to the question yet. And here they go sneaking around behind our backs trying to score a better role than the rest of us are going to be able to have. Jesus, if they’re going to be on your right and left hand, let’s add a few more chairs on either side so we are ruling equally with you. After all, we’ve all been with you every step of the way so far.
Jesus knew their minds were going down this road and were going to continue down this road until He put a stop to it. So, He called them all over, sat them down, and straightened them out. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them.”
There are a couple of things about this statement worth noting. First, He doesn’t start by picking on His own people. He spoke in terms they were going to agree with without an argument. Had He said something like, “You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Jews…” the picking at their own people would have had them playing defense in their minds rather than really listening to what He had to say. He was not being racist, He was making sure He was heard. Of course the Jewish rulers lorded their position over the people below them. He had called them out for doing that kind of thing already and would yet again. This wasn’t a Gentile problem, it is a human problem.
The second thing worth noting here is how He says “you know” they do this. He said that because they knew this kind of thing happened. Everyone did. People in positions of power lord their power over their underlings. That’s always been the case. Someone gets a promotion and is suddenly better than the people who had been peers only days before. Why? Because he’s better now. She has more power now. There’s a distinction between him and them. This is just how things work. And everybody knows it. We’re never surprised when someone gets a little power and starts acting like they’ve got a lot of power.
That may be how the world works, but it’s not how the kingdom of God works. It is governed by an entirely different law. It is the law of the other. In the kingdom, whatever you have is to be used for the benefit of the person next to you. Your resources are to be managed for the sake of those who don’t have the same. Your advantages are to be leveraged in such a way that people without them can experience some of the good you have known because of them. Greatness and power are defined by making oneself available to meet the needs of everyone else. In the kingdom, the race to the top is really a race to the bottom. Instead of demanding to be served, people with power in the kingdom serve everyone else. The one who serves the most is the greatest.
This all lands for us on a very simple point: If you want to achieve a greatness that will truly last, your first move should be to ask how you can serve those around you. If you have something that gives you an edge over the people around you, find ways to use that edge for the benefit of the people around you. If you have a talent that others envy, put it to use in such a way that makes their lives easier. Put others first. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t work to see your own needs met. That’s not the case at all. If you’re a total wreck, you won’t be of any good to anyone else. It means, though, that while you are making sure you care for yourself, you’re willing to put that to the side in a moment to help someone who needs what you have more than you do. If you want to lead, serving is how you get there. This won’t get you much attention in the world, but it will get you celebrated in the kingdom of God. You’ve simply got to decide whose opinion matters more.