Whoever wishes to be great among you
must be your servant.
In today’s Gospel for the feast of St. James, we hear the mother of James and John asking Jesus to give them seats of honor. Jesus explains what this would mean to her sons but the other apostles are a bit taken aback and complain.
In response, Jesus tells them:
but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 26-28)
I have heard many calling to “make America [really just the US] great again,” but is it the greatness of Jesus? Or is it the temptation to greatness that Jesus experienced in the desert – being acclaimed by all and having power over all? (Matthew 4: 1-11)
Many years ago I was introduced to Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon which he preached in 1968 on one of the parallel texts of today’s Gospel. It gives us an idea of what Jesus means by greatness.
… Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Greatness is not power; greatness is not having the seats of honor; greatness is not being looked up to; greatness is not being over and above others.
Greatness is service; greatness is sitting at the feet of the poor and ill, washing their feet; greatness is looking up into the eyes of those one is serving; greatness is loving, being with others, accompanying them.
The words Jesus uses in the passage cited above are significant for me as a newly ordained permanent deacon.
Whoever wishes to be great must be your servant, your deacon – διάκονος;
whoever wishes to be first must be your slave – δοῦλος.
This is who Jesus calls us to be and, pointedly, he noted that this is not the way of the rulers of this world, even those who claim the mantle of Christianity.
And so today I meditate on my calling to be servant – and God keeps giving me opportunities to be a servant.
As I was writing this blog, a neighbor came to the door and asked me to take communion to her sister who just came back from the hospital after a stroke. With great joy I have been given a little way to serve.
The full text of Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct Sermon” can be found here.