Many aspire to greatness. And even if we do not aspire to greatness, without ambition few of us would achieve very much. This morning’s gospel offers practical lessons in ambition and the goals for which we should be ambitious.
James and John seek Jesus out in private. They begin, I suspect, somewhat abashedly, by asking Jesus to grant any request they make. In this they are like children with a parent, or a sailor with a chief, when the requester knows that the request isn’t quite right and is likely to be denied. You know the feelings I’m talking about, I am sure. We have all tried this technique at least once or twice.
Matthew reports that James and John were even more subtle. They did not go by themselves to see Jesus, but went with their mother and had her ask Jesus. Some scholars suspect that Matthew’s account may reflect an effort to make James and John look less ambitious, less political, instead portraying them as saintlier.
In any case, the gospel seems a clear rejection of “office politics.” The path to true greatness does not consist in networking, currying favor, having more “face time” than anybody else, or in changing our attitudes, values and opinions to match the prevailing wind. If honest, most of us try “politics” to get what we want from our parents, our spouse, our co-workers, our boss, and our friends at least some of the time. The twinge of conscience which I hope we feel when we use these tactics is God reminding us that these tactics are wrong and are not the path to greatness.
More surprising than Jesus’ rejection of politics as the path to preferment is Jesus’ rejection of advancement on the basis of achievement. Once James and John have asked Jesus to sit at his right and left, Jesus asks if they will be able to drink from the cup from which he is to drink and to be baptized with the baptism with which he will be baptized.
From the vantage point of the twentieth century, these are clearly allusions to Jesus’ crucifixion. James and John do not seem to have grasped what Jesus was talking about. The word used for baptism in this verse means submerged. In other words, Jesus asks James and John, are you able to be submerged into my life? Are you, are we, able to face every test and trial which Jesus faced?
James and John glibly reply, “We are able.” Jesus acknowledges that they indeed are able to drink from his cup and receive his baptism, but that this does not qualify them for preferment in God’s kingdom.
With God, we know that selections for preferment or promotion are not capricious. We know that God loves us too much to arbitrarily choose one person over another. And while the criteria for selection remain mysterious, we know that they are neither based on spiritual politics or ability, skill, accomplishments or merit. God chooses whom God will favor. We also know that humans have a role in determining what happens. Apparent capriciousness or blatant unfairness point to human actions, not to what God has done or is doing.
While God has chosen those whom God will favor, the path to greatness is clear: the one who would be great must be the servant of all, and the one who wishes to be first among all must be the slave of all. This is diametrically opposed to the prevalent notion that the path to greatness consists of positions of prominence, prestige and power.
To seek to be the servant of all is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. God could have responded to sin in many different ways: by destroying all creation, wiping the canvass clean; by abandoning creation, throwing the partially finished canvass on a cosmic trash heap; or by patiently, lovingly reworking the details until each part was perfected, creating a living masterpiece. This was the course God chose. Jesus points the way to perfection, the way of sacrificial love which takes God as its center and finds fulfillment in others.
During the terrible Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of this century (the leaders were so nicknamed because they practiced gymnastics and calisthenics), the “boxers” captured a mission station, then placed a flat cross on the ground. They gave instruction that those who trampled the cross as they came out of the building would be set free; those who walked around the cross would be executed. The first seven students trampled the cross under their feet and were released.
But the eighth student, a young girl, knelt beside the cross and prayer for strength. Then she slowly walked around the cross to face the firing squad. Strengthened by her example, every one of the more than ninety other students followed her to death. This young student’s ambition of faithfulness brought her true greatness. May God grant us the same courage and faithfulness.
Erwin W. Lutzer, Where Do We Go From Here? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), 45.