“Americans are sick of a process that is failing”— or so, that was the recent opinion of a news commentator. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, you can understand the point he makes.
Now, Jesus is not addressing Washington D.C. politics in our reading. He does highlight the pushy government of non-Jewish rulers and high officials, but even there he is not diving into political waters. Rather, Jesus knows the world’s view of authority can easily infiltrate our attitude and propel us into self-centered living. So, Jesus teaches: Be Great in God’s Kingdom! Not by seeking to be served, but by seeking to serve.
That is the goal in the minds of the disciples— to Be Great in God’s Kingdom! They feel greatness is right around the corner. Jesus is going up to Jerusalem. This is the city of great King David! Under David’s reign, Israel’s borders reach their greatest extent. Trade flourishes. Wealth increases. The borders are secure. Yet, that was 1,000 years ago. Now the pesky Romans live in Jerusalem. Jews must file permission slips just to enforce their laws. Roman soldiers march through city streets, demanding undivided allegiance to Tiberius Caesar. Roman tax collectors squeeze Jewish money from them and ship it off to Rome for their lavish palaces and lush spas.
The disciples want change—and they see it coming. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem! He is David’s descendant! (2 Samuel 7:12-13) This must be the time when Jesus will finally seize power, expel the Romans, sit on an earthly throne, and restore Israel to its former glory!
So, before the chaotic revolution breaks out, the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with a special request. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Those are positions of honor, trust, and authority. If your best friend is your “right-hand-man,” then it means you trust him as much as you trust yourself. You consider his advice equal to your advice. If you happen to die, then your right-hand-man will assume the throne and carry on your agenda. And just in case the “right-hand-man” dies, then your “left-hand-man” governs the nation!
James and John appear perfect for these positions. They have quit their fishing careers, left their homes, and gave up their personal time to follow Jesus! (Matthew 4:21-22). Certainly that must deserve a position of greatness Jesus’ new kingdom!
When the other ten disciples hear about this bold request, they [become] indignant [angry] with the two brothers. They realize if James and John receive positions of high power, then they would have a lower status and could be ordered around! No one wants that, right? After all, Andrew and Peter are the first and second disciples to follow Jesus! (Matthew 4:18-20). Disciple Philip recognizes that Jesus of Nazareth is the One Moses wrote about (John 1:45). Jesus identifies Nathanael “a true Israelite!” (1:47). Each disciple flaunts personal greatness in the hope of being served.
Can you just imagine this scene? Jesus stands there, just having predicted his betrayal and death for the third time— and instead of receiving comforting support, the Twelve bicker over which one of them is the most important and which one will rule in Jesus’ kingdom!
Is that not how selfishness works? The human heart seeks to be served by others and will toss aside anyone else’s needs so that your self-wants are secured.
Maybe you have worshiped here from the very beginning. Do you feel people must conform to the way you behave and act in worship, while thinking no one has the right to make the same demand of you? So, you think all children must be quiet in worship so that you can sit in the back and listen, instead of allowing new families to sit near the exit doors and you moving forward. Perhaps you have a vision of how your church building should look, and so you make sure no one dares work, let alone mention, a change you have not approved.
Maybe you do not actively promote your wants; maybe you just wallow in jealousy. You are jealous that a younger friend receives more praise for the same talent you have. You feel government leaders are inept at their jobs, whereas you have lived longer, have more connections, and really know how to spend money. You had the bad day and so you make sure no one slows down your speed on the road or takes your spot at the checkout line or allows their leaves to blow in your yard.
Don’t you see what actually happens? Selfishness pushes God’s Word away from your heart so that you can get the earthly comforts you want—even if it means sacrificing your Savior.
Look again at the disciples. What did they want? To be served. How would they get it? By ranking themselves in order of importance and by keeping Jesus away from the cross and seated in Jerusalem. They wish to Be Great in God’s Kingdom! by seeking to be served. Selfishness let loose will only seek to serve your wants— even if it means pushing Jesus’ saving intentions out of your heart!
So Jesus comes to crush all selfishness. He reminds you that you are different. Your views of greatness do not align with the way the world views greatness. You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Do you want a more word-for-word translation? “It is not thus among you.” Jesus points to such selfish thinking and says: “See this attitude? An unbelieving world may act this way, but this is not the way believers function!” “Is”— a present tense verb. This is your ongoing, every day attitude— that you do not seek to be served, but rather to serve.
Jesus is not laying out a challenge for you or me. Instead, he points you to your motivation for serving. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus is entering Jerusalem, not to conquer the city, but to be betrayed, condemned, mocked, flogged, and crucified. The King of heaven and earth lays aside his almighty strength so that Judas can lead enemies to arrest him. He makes no use of his authority as God and allows worldly leaders to lie about him. He allows soldiers to slap the face of God, to tear up God’s back, and to spit in God’s face. If you were a king, a mayor, a boss, would you allow such insubordination? Of course not! You would punish everyone who dared defy you! Yet, Jesus does not come to punish you and me— for all those times selfish wants challenge his authority. He does not sit by as our selfishness destroys any hope for eternal life. The Son of Man [comes] to give his life as a ransom for [you].
A ransom is payment given in order to free the prisoner. (Someone is kidnapped, the kidnapper demands money in exchange for the person). Jesus uses his life as the payment to free us from hell. His selfless sacrifice is handed to God and in exchange for this blameless life, God opens the door to heaven!
You know this payment is accepted! Jesus rises from the dead on the third day! Where there is no payment owed for sin, there is no death. You who receive the life of Jesus will not taste eternal death, you will enter God’s heavenly kingdom!
That is how you Are Great in God’s Kingdom! God’s kingdom is not earthly. It does not rest in Jerusalem or in the Middle East or in America. The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). God uses his Word to rule your heart. Your wants are placed below his wants. Selfish desires submit to his selfless intentions.
So, you seek to serve others. You do this when you already see how Jesus served you! So, you selflessly do what you can to serve families—even if it means sitting in a new area. You may have in mind ways your congregation should use money or improve the building. Yet, you gently listen to others and make a decision based on what would serve the needs of others. Sometimes the workday gets long. You may have had a busy schedule of appointments. You may be on your last nerve. Yet, you gently seek the interests of others. The road is not a race. Your children (and grandchildren) are not stress-relief objects. Your spouse is not your verbal punching bag. Look at Jesus humbly lay aside his power to serve you. Such great love touches your life, giving you the power to serve others.
It will not always be easy to put the needs of others ahead of your wishes. We live in a world where leaders lord authority over citizens. Our employers and families may seek to get ahead in life at your personal expense. Be sure, our hearts will want to be served.
Yet, Jesus gives his life as a ransom for sin so that you can Be Great in God’s Kingdom! Touched by Jesus’ selfless love, you seek to serve others.