Jesus approaches Jerusalem. There is growing enthusiasm over his ministry. The sick are healed. The lame walk. The deaf hear. Meanwhile, the religious authorities — the scribes and the Pharisees — are challenged by this simple country preacher. Among the disciples, there is a growing sense that maybe this Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the one who is to come and re-establish the reign of God, overthrow the pagan Roman government and place Israel once again in the position of power. As the disciples look off and see Jerusalem in the distance they see a road to power, position, and influence in society. Great things for Jesus as their commander and for them as followers of God’s chosen one.
But Jesus sees something different. As he looks to Jerusalem he sees opposition, persecution, and death on a cross. Jesus tries to communicate this vision to the disciples, but they aren’t ready to hear.
And so, caught up in the spirit of power and influence, James and John go to Jesus and ask, “When you come into power, let us be your right hand men.” Jesus is sensitive in his response. “You don’t know what you’re saying.” He tells them. The road to Jerusalem is not a road of conquest and power, but suffering and persecution. Are you willing to follow me down that road?
James and John hear this, but they fail to grasp it. They expect there will be some bumps and bruises along the way. We are able to take that, they reply. Come on, Jesus, give us favor in your kingdom. Let us sit on your right and left hands.
When the others hear about his, they become angry. They are indignant with James and John. What are you doing bothering Jesus at a time like this? And where do you get off requesting special favors? We’ve been around as long as you have. What’s the big idea? Why should you get special privileges?
Jesus tries to re-frame the whole discussion. In the reign of God, rulers are not honored for their position, but those who are servants are considered first. In the kingdom of God, the tables are turned. To follow God’s reign in the world, you don’t go around trying to yield political influence to “lord it over others.” Instead, you go around as a servant, meeting the needs of others, just as Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. If you seek power and position for your own sake, you’re not following God.
Madeleine L’Engle in her book, Walking on Water writes,
In a very real sense not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do the work, to God’s glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own.
Our leadership in Christ is not through our strengths, but in our weakness.
There is a great desire by many within the church to yield political power in society. I would not disagree entirely with this desire, but I do want to qualify it a bit. In some ways, we are better able to be servants because we have less power and influence. I think the best way to proclaim the Gospel is not through flexing our political muscles, but through exposing our weaknesses and offering ourselves to the service of others.
Are we being more like servant leaders when we launch a temperance movement and opening the church doors to Alcoholics Anonymous? Fight abortion laws or provide alternatives to pregnant women in need. Engage in nasty partisan politics or pray for our leaders?
This is the beauty and the challenge of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus did not change any laws, did not oppose any standards of the Jewish community. Instead, he breathed new life into old laws, old ways of being by taking seriously who God is and who we are. God is alive and well and working in our world today. We are children of God, children called to be servants of all creation. Not to lord over others, to be in a position greater than someone else, but to serve the needs of others and in that way witness to God’s love.
Part of the beauty of our faith in Christ is that we are not alone in our weaknesses, in our doubts and frustrations. We have a “high priest”, as Hebrews puts it, who is able to sympathize with us because he’s been there. Jesus has been the servant, despised by those he loved. Persecuted by those he came to serve. Stepped on by those he tried to lift up. He was tested in every way. Tempted to fight back, to ignore the laws of God, to disregard the faith of his community. He could have walked away and gone into hiding, claiming that the world will never change and we might as well just get used to it.
But he didn’t do this. Instead, he continued to serve. Healing the sick. Releasing the captive. Preaching good news to the poor. The one we call Lord is the Servant of all. We can be bold as we approach the throne of grace because our Lord, Jesus Christ, knows every weakness. We can find grace in our time of need.
We are called not to a ministry of power and influence, but a servant of ministry. Led by the one we call Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the Servant of All.