READ : Mark 10:43-45
But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Mark 10:43-45 rsv
At some time during our lives, many of us have had the experience of serving as a waiter or a waitress. Mine came when I was in college. For four years in my fraternity eating hall, I with several others had the job of setting up tables, washing dishes and waiting on my brothers. I learned a lot in those years about the various ways in which diners treat those who serve them. But for me that was only an occasional task, done among my friends. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to do it for the public as a full-time job.
I have a good deal of admiration for waitresses and waiters. For one thing, they’re focused on being helpful to others. Their attention is always on someone else’s needs. They’re expected to be capable, prompt, attentive and courteous, not just now and then but consistently, hour after hour. They’re required to deal at times with people who are rude and demeaning, surly and critical, yet treat them all with respect and graciousness. That takes a lot. My hat’s off to those who wait on tables.
But what do I mean by saying that’s a task for all Christians, that Jesus calls His followers to wait on tables? Listen to these words from Mark, chapter 10, at verse 35 and then I’ll explain what I mean.
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
THE YEN TO BE GREAT
This passage reminds me of the way all of us seem to have a desire to be great. Here were James and John, brothers, two of Jesus’ disciples. They came to their master one day to ask a favor. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. And they said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now there may have been laudable things about a request like this. James and John had the faith that Jesus would indeed reign in glory. They trusted in Him and what God was doing through Him. And obviously, they wanted to be near the Lord. They were among His devoted followers. Yet, along with all that, they seem to have had a strong desire for personal eminence. They wanted the places of honor. They wanted to be singled out as the Lord’s special representatives, perhaps with authority over all the rest. They were putting themselves forward, presenting themselves as worthy candidates for high distinction. They apparently felt they had it coming. Perhaps they already saw themselves as Jesus’ special favorites and wanted to secure that position in the life to come.
When the other disciples heard about it, they were indignant. They didn’t appreciate this bid for primacy on the part of the sons of Zebedee. It seemed to them a kind of power play. They resented it. “Who do these guys think they are anyway? Why should they get seats of honor?”
It might seem at first glance that these were more humble than James and John. They hadn’t asked, as far as we know, to be uniquely honored. But their attitude suggests that they weren’t without such ambitions. Why do we feel uncomfortable about the guy or the girl who is always stealing the show, hogging the limelight? Often it’s because we would like recognition ourselves. Why do we resent the one who’s the life of the party? Because it would feel so good to us at times to be the center of attention. So if we openly seek the place of privilege for ourselves or if we are impatient with those who do, the same aspirations are probably down inside us all. Oh, to be someone great! To be first! To be number one!
THE LORD’S GRACIOUS RESPONSE
It’s interesting to me that Jesus didn’t put down James and John for their request. He didn’t rebuke them for pride, didn’t say their ambition was unseemly, didn’t compare them unfavorably with the rest. He did say that they didn’t know what they were asking. He ran these questions by them: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” In other words, “Can you walk the path of sorrow and rejection? Are you willing to be so identified with Me as to share My sufferings?” Jesus was probing, I think, the depth and seriousness of their commitment to Him.
When they said, “Yes, we are able,” the Lord agreed with them. “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” But then He went on to say that the privilege of sitting at His right hand or His left was the Father’s to give. Those in the places of honor would be the ones He had chosen and prepared. But in Jesus’ response to the brothers, there was not a hint of reproach. He never discouraged their lofty ambition.
And, as far as we know, He didn’t censure the other ten for their attitudes, either. Isn’t it good, isn’t it encouraging that Jesus Christ affirms our longings for significance, our aspirations to be great? Always remember that, friends. To want to be a great ball player, a great doctor, great worker, or great Christian, there’s nothing wrong with that. Whoever said there was anything good or godly about being ambitionless? A dull contentment with mediocrity has nothing holy about it. It’s as though Jesus says here, “Go ahead. Dream all you want. It’s okay to yearn for greatness.”
But the Lord has much more to say than that. He senses that something about the search for greatness in these disciples was off center. He probably notices the same in you and me. We all tend to have the wrong outlook about what it means to be great. So Jesus wants to straighten out our thinking, to redirect our ambitions. He wants us to have a vivid, realistic sense of what it means to be great.
First, He sketches the world’s view of greatness. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.” As we tend to look at it, the great people are those in command. They exercise authority. They throw their weight around. They get others to do what they want. They can hire or purchase plenty of servants.
According to this way of looking at things, great people are those who have others waiting on them, catering to them, responding to their slightest wish. Greatness means power, privilege, clout. The king has attendants always at his beck and call. The queen has her ladies in waiting. The CEO can get anybody in the company to interrupt what he or she is doing and respond to the boss’s orders. We’re impressed by that, aren’t we? “That man must be somebody!” we say, or “That’s a successful woman!” When they snap their fingers, everybody jumps.
But after Jesus lays out that picture, He brushes it aside. That’s not it. That’s not greatness in His eyes. “It shall not be so among you.” In other words, if you’re looking for that kind of greatness, you’re on the wrong track. You’re following the wrong lord. The true Lord is not impressed with that style of greatness, and He doesn’t encourage any of His people to crave it.
Now for the real kind. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” So you want to be great? Here’s how you do it: You act as though you’re the bondservant of your brothers and sisters. You take the role of a servant. That word servant is key here. In the Greek language, it comes from a verb which means, “to wait on someone at table.” It’s to serve as a waiter or a waitress. How’s that for a turnaround? Greatness shows itself in lowly ministry, attending to the needs of others, looking out for their interests, honoring them and doing them good.
Talk about a radical, revolutionary idea! That’s surely one. If you walk into a banquet hall and see a group of dignitaries sitting at a table and another group of servants taking their orders, serving them food, clearing away their dishes, which would you say are the great ones in that dining room? According to Jesus, it’s not the kings and queens but the kitchen crew.
Do you want to have healthy ambition? Do you aspire for a greatness that’s genuine, that means something in God’s eyes? Then aspire to serve, covet to wait on tables. The chief seats in the kingdom may be out of our reach. But real eminence and excellence, the high honor of being a great Christian, is open to all of us along this lowly road of ministering to other people.
SOMEONE LIVED THAT WAY
Does that sound to you like an other-worldly ideal? Are you saying to yourself, “Yeah, but who really thinks that way? And in the real world, who wants it?” Jesus’ last word speaks to that. Listen: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” “The Son of man” was Jesus’ favorite term for Himself. It spoke, of course, of His identification with us all. But it harked back also to a strange vision in the book of Daniel. The Son of man there is an exalted figure to whom is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14). This is a person of might and majesty, before whom all will bow. But He has come, Jesus says, not to be served but to serve, not to be waited on but to be a waiter at table. And more than that, He comes to give His life as a ransom for many, to offer Himself in sacrifice for His people, bearing their sins and sorrows, dying their death, redeeming them by His poured out life.
Suddenly the extraordinary, the unimaginable begins to make sense. Someone, somewhere, actually lived that way: the One who was supremely worthy, the One who came from heaven’s glory, the One to whom all praise, devotion, obedience and service belong. This One, the incomparably great One, came not to be fawned over, courted and pampered but to spend Himself in loving ministry to others, even to utter self-sacrifice.
In our better moments, we know it’s true, don’t we? We know that the tiny Albanian lady we call Mother Teresa is greater by far than the world’s royalty. It’s just that we find it hard to apply the lesson to our own situations. And how would we ever succeed were it not for Jesus – His blessed example in giving Himself for us and the power of His Spirit in making us like Himself?
May the Lord kindle in our hearts a passion for true greatness and may we always see it as embodied in the waitress or waiter. Great ones are prompt to think of others, to see that they are taken care of, their needs attended to first. Greatness is not in the status we occupy or the power we wield. It’s in the spirit by which we offer ourselves to serve. Lord Jesus, exalted Son of man, suffering servant of the Lord, so make us like Yourself that we may be truly great! Amen.