Summary: What is greatness? The opposite of what we think. We’re so thankful that God is "great" in this way.
Matthew 20:17-28: GREATNESS IN GOD’S UPSIDE-DOWN KINGDOM
Once there was the president of a large corporation. He was a powerful man – when he said “jump” people would ask, “How high?” Everyone was below him, and everyone had to answer to him. And this job came with nice benefits – a fancy house, nice car. But this man was different. He decided to take an upside-down approach to life. He decided that he didn’t want to be president anymore. Instead of climbing up the corporate ladder, he decided to climb down the corporate ladder. So, to everyone’s surprise, he applied for a lower position – the position of vice president. He got it, of course. He demoted himself, and made someone else president. Now he had someone above him.
But he wasn’t done yet. He had an upside-down approach to life. He demoted himself again, this time to office executive. Now he had 15 people over him, and less pay. He wanted to go even lower, so he demoted himself again. Now he was an administrative assistant, and he had 200 people over him. His pay was going down, so he had to sell his house and move into a smaller one. But he wasn’t done yet. He was an upside-down thinker. He finally demoted himself to the lowest position in the company – he was in the mail room, and everyone in the company was over him.
Would this ever happen in real life? Probably not. No one strives to be at the bottom, serving everybody else. Greatness is climbing to the top. Greatness is how many people you have underneath you. Greatness is power. Greatness is sitting in the board room and telling someone, “You’re fired.”
But God has an upside down approach to life. God has set up his kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, in an upside down sort of way. God loves to contradict how our world thinks. In God’s upside down kingdom, the greatest person is not the person who is at the top, who is in charge of everyone else and can tell everyone else what to do. In God’s kingdom, the greatest person is one who is at the bottom. It’s the one who has the most people over him, and he answers and serves everyone. In God’s kingdom, that’s greatness.
Doesn’t that seem strange? It must have seemed strange to two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John. They had a completely different picture of “greatness.” They believed, just like every body else, that Jesus had come into the world to help the Jews overthrow the Roman government. Someday, Jesus would reestablish the glorious kingdom of Israel, and he would be in charge, and we, the twelve apostles, would be at his side. We’ve going to be the twelve vice presidents. We’re going to be in charge of everybody. James and John were part of Jesus’ inner circle, and they couldn’t wait to be number one and number two in Jesus’ future kingdom.
Their mother got involved. All mothers want to see their children succeed, so she took Jesus aside and asked him for a special favor for her sons. “What is it you want?” Jesus asked their mother. And she said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” In other words, make my sons number one and number two, when you finally take charge – that was her request.
And Jesus said to her, “You don’t know what you are asking.” You don’t know what my kingdom is. It’s not an earthly kingdom. The twelve apostles aren’t going to be the twelve vice presidents someday. You’re thinking about greatness in a worldly way. God’s way is harder, more difficult, not glorious at all. That’s why Jesus asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” The cup Jesus was talking about was that cup of humility, that cup of suffering and lowliness that he was going to experience in the not-so-distant future.
James and John didn’t understand that, and that’s why they said, “Sure we can.” We can take it. I’ve always enjoyed how gentle Jesus was with his disciples. Instead of taking them to task, Jesus gently lets them down by saying, “You will indeed drink from my cup.” You will indeed experience humility and lowliness and servitude to others, “but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” In my spiritual kingdom, I will have people sitting at my right and my left, that is true. But those people are going to be the ones who achieved greatness in a very upside down sort of way. My Heavenly Father is the one who places people into those positions of servitude.