READ : Mark 10:35-45
Jesus said many things in his life that sound paradoxical but nothing he said was quite as amazing as this: “If you really want to be great, you must become the servant of all.”
How can you tell who the greatest people are? In one sense, it’s easy. The most important people are usually the most famous ones. They’re the people who have stories written about them, who get their pictures in the newspapers and glossy magazines, whose lives are profiled on television programs. They are the celebrities -the politicians, the athletes, the movie stars, the wealthy businessmen. It’s easy to spot them. You can identify them by the clothes they wear, the kinds of cars they drive, the places where they live. And there will usually be a crowd around them too: bodyguards, personal assistants, press agents, and various assorted hangers-on. So you can always tell who the greatest people in the world are. Just look for the ones with the most money, and power and fame.
AN AMBITIOUS REQUEST
One day when Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples, the subject of true greatness came up. It was shortly before the crucifixion. Jesus was headed toward the city for the last time. Mark says that as they were on their way up to Jerusalem with Jesus leading the way, the disciples were “astonished, while those who followed them were afraid” (Mark 10:32). What could it have been that so amazed and frightened Jesus’ friends as they hurried after him up the road to the city? It could only have been the look on his face, or maybe something in his manner, or a tone in his voice that told them a crisis was ahead. Jesus knew very well what awaited him in Jerusalem. He had tried to prepare his disciples for the fact that he was going to be arrested there and put to death. This was a necessary part of God’s plan to save the world. The disciples never quite got it. They couldn’t accept the fact that in a few days Jesus was going to die on a cross.
They could sense that something big and climactic was about to happen. They did have a sense that a risky and momentous venture was about to begin. But they guessed wrong about its nature. They thought that Jesus, the Messiah, the promised Savior and champion of God’s people Israel, was going to Jerusalem in order to seize the country from the Romans. His arrival would spark a rebellion among the people. Jesus would use his miraculous powers to overthrow the oppressors and take his rightful place on the throne of his ancestor King David. So as they were walking toward Jerusalem, James and John, two of Jesus’ closest friends, came to him privately with a special request.
“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
“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?”
“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, 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.”
And Mark, who gave us this account, added this:
When the ten [that is, the other disciples] heard about this, they became [very angry] with James and John. . . .
Mark 10:35-45, niv
James and John wanted the top spots in the incoming administration. They figured they had the inside track, so to speak; after all, they were part of Jesus’ most intimate circle. They wanted to sit on either side of him in his kingdom, one as foreign minister, perhaps, and the other as secretary of defense. But they didn’t really know what they were asking for. Jesus was a king, alright, but his kingship consisted in sacrificing himself for the sake of others. His service would be defined by innocent suffering.
When the other disciples heard what James and John were asking for, naturally they were upset. Their indignation, however, was not aroused by the insensitivity and selfishness of the two’s request for personal prestige and power. Not at all! They were just mad that they hadn’t thought of asking for preferment first. The other disciples were afraid of falling behind in the race for the top places and best jobs and most perks in what they thought was Jesus soon-to-be inaugurated kingdom here on earth (not in heaven). So in the face of all this worldly ambition and self-assertiveness, Jesus decides to talk to his followers about true greatness.
He called them together and said this to them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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.”
Jesus stops the disciples’ squabbling by inserting this lesson on what it really means to be truly great. He patiently goes over one last time the same things he had repeatedly taught them before. First of all, Jesus says, you need to realize that there are two conflicting definitions of greatness. In the world – “among the Gentiles,” as he put it – greatness is defined by position. It’s all about rulers and high officials and important people. Jesus is referring to the way the world measures someone’s importance. It’s all related to one’s elevation; the higher you climb, the greater you are. “Some are born great,” wrote Shakespeare, “some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” But however it may be attained, greatness in the world’s eyes is reserved only for those who are at the top.
Furthermore, says Jesus, in the world, greatness is expressed through the exercise of power. The world’s rulers “lord it over them,” in Jesus’ words. Earthly greatness means being able to have other people do what you tell them to, to manipulate and manage people in order to carry out your own agenda. If you are great, you have those who serve you and do your bidding. You can issue orders and expect them to be obeyed; everyone defers to you, no one dares to contradict or cross you. That’s what it means to be a great person in the world’s terms. It’s as much the same in the year 2000 a.d. as it was in the year 1.
“But you are not to be like that.” With that simple statement Christ brings the pretensions of the world crashing down in ruins. True greatness, greatness as Jesus defines it, is directly opposite to the world’s understanding. In God’s administration, things are different. There greatness is determined by your position all right, but it’s how low you can go, not how high you might climb. In Jesus’ kingdom, the way up is down. True greatness is expressed in humility, in lowly, modest, unpretentious, humble service to others. Whoever must be great, says Jesus, must become a servant. If you want to be first you need to be willing to do the work of a slave. As always, Jesus himself is the perfect model of greatness through servanthood. Speaking of himself, Jesus drew attention to the obvious: “The Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve others, and to give his life in order to save many.”
PRACTICING WHAT HE PREACHED
Jesus not only talked about greatness. He practiced what he preached. It was a Thursday, just a few days later. It was the evening before Jesus’ death. Jesus had gathered with his disciples in a room in the upper story of a house in Jerusalem to share the Passover meal. The thing that most stands out about this evening Jesus spent with his friends is the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus instituted a new covenant meal with his disciples. But he also did something very significant after the meal. Jesus rose, took a towel and a basin full of water, and one by one he went around the room washing his disciples’ feet.
Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet was an arresting example. In fact, that’s exactly what he called it. “I have given you an example,” he said. “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord.’ You are right. That is what I am. I, your Lord and Teacher . . . have given you an example. You should do as I have done for you. . . . Now you know these things. So you will be blessed if you do them.”
Of course, they didn’t really understand everything about what Jesus had done for them. The disciples couldn’t have fully grasped the symbolism of washing for the forgiveness of sins because Jesus hadn’t died yet. But what they could understand was the power of the example he had given them of humble, self-effacing service. They could grasp the fact that if Jesus, their Lord and Master, would lower himself to do this slave’s work for them, then none of them was too important not to do anything for anyone. They could feel the force of the towel and the basin. They could realize that the Lord was now placing these humble tools in their hands, and that those servants’ implements would mark the lives of Christians from thenceforth. “I . . . have washed your feet. So you also should wash one another’s feet.”
Some Christians have taken Jesus literally. There are traditions and churches which use foot washing as a kind of sacrament, but of course what Jesus really means for us to do is not literally to wash each other’s feet. Foot washing symbolizes practical, loving service, service that meets the needs of people whatever those might be, however it might inconvenience us.
So what is it that the Lord is calling us to do? He’s calling us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely. He’s calling us to house the homeless, and help the destitute, to remember the prisoner, to comfort the grieving, to befriend the stranger, to love the enemy. He’s calling us to share his life in the most humble and practical ways. Because that is what it means to be truly great.
Oswald Chambers, the great devotional writer of the first part of this century, pointed out that on his last night with them on earth Jesus did not say to his disciples, “I’ve had a most successful time. I’ve addressed thousands of people and been the means of their salvation. Now you go and do the same kind of thing.” No. He said, “If I have washed your feet, you ought to do the same for others.” And if you’re willing to do that sort of service, you’ll become a real celebrity.
FAME – HERE AND THERE
It’s so easy for us to be captivated by the world’s definition of greatness that we forget the most important thing about it – it isn’t real. Jesus talks about those “who are regarded” as rulers in this world. But they aren’t the real rulers; God is. How the world looks at things, what the world says is important, whom the world lifts up and publicizes – none of these are true or real. It’s like mistaking a distant cloud bank on the horizon for a mountain range; when you get close enough, you see there’s really nothing there. C. S. Lewis has a story in which a man is given a tour of heaven. At one point he sees the glorious figure of a great and noble lady, approaching from a distance, escorted by a large company of attendants who praise and do her honor. The man who is watching this thinks she must be someone especially famous, perhaps even Mary, the mother of Christ. “Aye, she’s one of the great ones, alright,” says his guide, “But no one you’ll ever have heard of. She’s Mary Smith, the green-grocer’s wife. You do realize, of course, that fame here and fame in your country are two very different things.”
I can’t think of a more important lesson to remember.