Summary: Jesus describes "greatness" in a very different way than the world.
Jesus’ Way to Achieve Greatness
Are you good at what you do? Just think of all the things you do every day – what is it that you do for a living? Would you say that you are good at it? Have you achieved greatness in your profession yet? What about the things you do outside of your job – are you good at those things? Some of you are husbands and wives. Are you a good at that? What would your spouse say? Maybe that’s a loaded question. Some of you are parents – are you good at that? What about you who are sons and daughters – are you good to your parents? Have you achieved greatness in your life?
I think we all would like to be good at what we do, maybe even great at what we do. But how do you achieve that? What is greatness? Is it climbing to the top of the corporate ladder – becoming the president of a large corporation or business? Is it becoming the most powerful person in Madison, or in Wisconsin, or in our country – is that greatness? Whoever has the most money, the most comfortable life, the most friends – is that greatness?
This morning, Jesus speaks to us about the real definition of greatness. I think it will surprise you. We will see how Jesus is the ultimate example of greatness, and how you and I, not matter what our circumstances of life might be, can achieve greatness in everything we do.
Jesus talks about this shortly before Palm Sunday. The disciples could sense that things were intensifying for Jesus – something big was going to happen. Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, were wondering if Jesus was about to overthrow the Roman government. Maybe Jesus would use his miraculous powers to reestablish the glorious kingdom of Israel, and Jesus would be in charge, and we, the twelve apostles, would be at his side, the twelve powerful vice presidents.
James and John were getting excited about this possibility – they wanted to be number one and number two in Jesus’ future kingdom. Their mother got involved, and said to Jesus, “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.
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. Greatness in Jesus’ kingdom is not having lots of power on earth. Greatness in Jesus’ kingdom is humility. It’s sacrifice for others. That’s why Jesus asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Can you experience the humility and sacrifice that I’m about to go through? James and John didn’t understand, and so they said, “Sure we can.”
Jesus responded by saying, “You will indeed drink from my cup.” You will indeed experience humility and lowliness and sacrifice for 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 Jesus’ kingdom, he will have people sitting next to him, but those people are the ones who achieved greatness by humbling themselves and sacrificing themselves for others.
When the other ten disciples heard that James and John were trying to get more power, they got upset. So Jesus called them together and explained to them what greatness really is. “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high authorities exercise authority over them. Not so with you.” The earthly definition of greatness is to have lots of power – to be able to boss other people around, but not with you, Jesus said. “Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first, must be your slave.” A slave was someone who would wash other people’s feet, get people their food and drink, clean up after people are done eating. That’s greatness, Jesus said.
And then Jesus describes himself as the slave in the world: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” What made Jesus great was not his power. What made Jesus great was that placed himself below everybody – the slave of the world – and gave his life as a payment for all sin. That is greatness.
Jesus is telling us this morning that if you want to achieve greatness in whatever you do, then be a servant, be a slave, to all the people in your life. Rather than striving for power at work, strive to serve all of your fellow employees and customers. That’s greatness. And at home, you’re not there to experience comfort and ease and to be waited on, you’re there as a servant to your children, your spouse, your parents – you put yourself below them. That’s greatness. Rather than think about my needs and my wants, I will put that aside use my talents and abilities for other people’s needs and wants - that’s greatness. “Whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”