We live in a culture that praises personal achievement, wealth, and status. We work hard for our success. We climb the corporate ladder. We seek titles, money, and recognition. We argue for equality, but what really drives us is selfish ambition. We don’t call it that of course. We call it hard work. Our culture and society support this worldview of “hard work” wholeheartedly. Does any one see a problem with such ambitions?
Yes, actually. The world’s greatest leader, ever, had a problem with it. He spoke out against it repeatedly, often very harshly. Who would dare? Jesus.
I’ve been reading a fantastic sermon series from a friend. In it, he touches on Jesus’ response to The Request of James and John in Mark 10. To set the scene, Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. Despite the repeated lessons in humility, servant-hood, and the fact that Jesus is literally on the path to his own death (denying himself), his disciples, James and John, ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he enters his Kingdom. They had ambitions.
Readers today might envision this request to be something like three guys sitting up in heavenly clouds on thrones. That wasn’t the case. James and John wanted seats of power and prestige when Jesus overthrew the Roman Empire and took back the throne – as they fully expected the Messiah to do – that was in the job description for crying out loud! But Jesus had other ideas.
Jesus responded to James’ and John’s request to all his disciples:
Jesus called them together and said, “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.
But why? Why is Jesus so anti power, prestige, and titles? What’s so bad? It’s how the world turns, right? It is – but it’s also why it’s so screwed up. My friend writes this: Ambitions harbored in individual hearts have social implications; they affect the community, the team, the family, the group. When James and John asked Jesus for their seats of power, the other disciples were upset – not because they were shocked at such a self-serving request – rather, where the heck were they going to sit?! Jesus was saying, “Guys, vying for power isn’t how leaders are supposed to behave.”
In short, Jesus’ disciples were infighting. We do the same thing. As ambitious folk struggling to the top we create strife, discord, jealously, protectiveness, negativity, and more. We do it in our families, our work places, our towns, cities, cultures. And yet, we don’t even recognize we’re doing it. We’re so steeped in our own ambitions, and so quick to rationalize and justify our actions, we’re blind.
My friend goes on to elaborate on Mark’s next section in his gospel – Blind Bartimaeus Receives His Sight. Check out the juxtaposition my friend draws out:
James and John demand:
“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
Quite a bold request for two blind guys. You can sense their ambition in the way they approach Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Of course, they then ask for their seats in the White House. Now, notice the humble, but bold plea from blind Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus shouts, repeatedly:
“Son of David, have mercy on me!”
It’s a very different request. Bartimaeus is recognizing the king. And he’s boldly asking for mercy from his king versus demanding him do whatever he asks.
Again, Jesus responds:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
“Rabbi, I want to see.”
Jesus heals him saying, “Go, your faith has healed you.” Did Bartimaeus run off? Did he “go?” No, he stayed and followed Jesus – he followed the way of Jesus versus the Way of this World. Mark is showing us an upside Kingdom. The proud are humbled. The marginalized are exalted.
My friend closes his sermon with this:
What if Jesus came to you this morning with a question “What do you want me to do for you?”
I’ve been thinking about this. I don’t think we’d ask for a great job, money, power, or prestige – which is surprising given the time and resources we pour into these things. We’d have one of three reactions:
- Thanks, but I’m all set
- Be too scared to answer and perhaps hate him for such an intrusion
- Fall at his feet trembling, begging for mercy
What do you think?
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson