Mark 9:33-35 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘‘What were you arguing about on the road?’’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’’
Jesus watched and listened to his disciples when they were on their own. He knew that they probably acted differently when he wasn’t around. They were less guarded and more willing to speak their minds when he wasn’t in the middle of the conversation. This time they had argued amongst themselves. Let us try to listen in on their discussion.…
As they walked along the road, Jesus was in front, leading the way. The disciples trailed behind watching his back and speaking in hushed tones. Being with Jesus all this time had boosted their confidence. They knew they were now men of consequence. Most of the disciples agreed that the greatest among them must be one of the Three—Peter, James or John. However, Simon the Zealot thought that because he was the boldest of the lot evangelistically, he might be more important than the rest. And Matthew found it hard to accept that one of these fishermen could be more highly esteemed than him. He had more education than all of them put together. Not only was he good with numbers and calculations, but he could also read and write in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Those in John’s camp said that he seemed to have a special closeness to Jesus. While they said these things John looked down at the ground trying hard to keep from smiling and nodding his head. Peter, on the other hand, wasted no time reminding everyone that he was the one who had walked on the water, and who had correctly confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. Some of the others may have cut him off almost at once and reminded him that he was also the recipient of some of Jesus’ most stern rebukes. The ones who were campaigning for James for ‘‘Most Valuable Disciple’’ pointed out that he was a natural leader, strong and level headed. They would rather follow James than the emotional John or the impetuous Peter. As they argued, their discussions grew occasionally louder as one or another of them tried to make his point. The others would shush the overexcited disciple, nodding furtively towards Jesus. Someone would mutter, ‘‘He probably heard that!’’ One by one they dropped out of the discussion until
all at once it ended and they walked silently down the dusty path.
Jesus waited until he had them all together and gave them some time to cool down from their argument before choosing to address the matter. They would be less defensive after having some time to think about what they had said. In the heat of the argument, most of us arguers just want to be right; we only care about winning the argument. A fine-sounding argument is more valuable to us at such times than is truth or fairness. Later on, however, cooler heads can prevail. Jesus didn’t get involved in a discussion of who said what to whom; instead, he cut to the heart of the issue.
It is important to note that Jesus in no way corrected these men for wanting to be great. He did not quench the fires of ambition; he refocused them. Selfish ambition is a sin, according to the Bible, but to be ambitious for God and for others is highly esteemed. It has been my experience that people who are high achievers in life tend to want to be great for God after they become followers of Christ. Yet many who have not climbed the mountain of success in life also become high achievers in the kingdom of God. The former must learn to fight the ongoing battle against selfish ambition; the latter must discover the many difficulties associated with striving for greatness. These inexperienced achievers often trip over every hurdle that they encounter, sometimes falling flat on their faces, wondering why people reacted to them as they did, or why they failed in a particular endeavor. Regardless of which type of person we may be, seeking to be great for God is a noble ambition. God works powerfully in order to bring individuals into a relationship with him; the proper response to this is to turn around and do something extraordinary for God. Was Jesus’ message to the ambitious—"whoever wants to be first must be the very last and the servant of all’’—a one hundred and eighty degree turn from conventional wisdom and practice? Yes and no. We would concur that a good CEO would likely be the hardest working person in his organization. He would use all his energy, time and resources, and make a radical commitment to the company to the extent of depriving his family, for the good of the company. Yet the attitudes of most CEOs are a far cry from Jesus’ appeal to the ambitious to become a slave of all. Jesus didn’t merely preach this message; he lived it:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)
Consider what Jesus gave up to ‘‘take the position’’ of the Savior of the world. He was in heaven with God, the God of love, from all eternity. He was with God and he was God. He was free from every temptation and in complete power over every kind of evil. To be more specific about what Jesus must have given up to be abused by the world would be difficult. In fact, the Bible teaches that we can hardly imagine what will be in store for those who make it to this place called ‘‘heaven’’: ‘‘As it is written: 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.’’’ In giving up heaven, equality with God, and eventually his life for us, Jesus clearly had the right to call ambitious people to become the servants of all. People who aspire to be served by others are not remembered for long. But people who are eager to use their lives to benefit others are remembered and admired for generations (Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill to name but a few). If we want to maximize our impact we must adopt this attitude: to serve, not to be served.