Look for opportunities to volunteer for the lowliest, least-desirable jobs, and serve those who are least worthy and least grateful.
It was time to make their move. Usually it was Peter who took the initiative, but now it was their turn. They cleared their throats and asked the master for the best seats in the house, the places of honor right next to the throne.
Of course, in this conversation (see Mark 10:35–45), John and James were referring to that glorious moment when Jesus would be finally acclaimed king of Israel—indeed, of the whole world. They envisioned themselves as prime ministers “A” and “B” who should naturally bask in the splendor of the monarch.
Jesus was quite restrained in his correction. It was natural for the disciples to strive for excellence since God created us to do so. And it was natural for them to think that excellence meant privilege, honor, and glory, because that’s how everyone seems to think of it, whether Jew or Gentile. Both chief priests and Roman governors were surrounded with pomp and circumstance, servants and sycophants.
Jesus wanted his disciples to be ambitious about achieving true greatness, which is having not big heads, but big hearts. It is that love called charity that makes men and women truly great, since it makes them like God, in whose image they were created. Jesus had begun to show his disciples what God’s love was like, but they hadn’t gotten the point. Their feet had not yet been washed, and their king had not been crowned with thorns. They had not yet understood that love is self-emptying, that true greatness lies in sacrifice, that “prime minister” means servant of all.
In a world where self-interest and self-promotion are the law of the land, such a love is destined to suffer. To be great in love is to suffer much. The cup of feasting may come, but only after the cup of suffering. Jesus had come to drain this bitter cup to its dregs. Were they ready to drink it with him? Glibly they answered yes, oblivious to the implications of their choice. They would learn soon enough what it would entail.
The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus can be compassionate and merciful with us because he was tempted in every way we are tempted, though he never succumbed (see Hebrews 4:14–16). He could correct the sons of Zebedee with gentleness because he himself was tempted to gain the favor and glory of the kingdoms of the world by bowing before the father of pride (see Matthew 4:8–9). He humbly chose instead to serve the Father of mercy.
You’d think it would be easier for us to get the point than those two brothers. After all, we received the spirit of understanding when, in baptism and confirmation, we put on the mind of Christ. We know the end of the story—that the resurrection follows the crucifixion.
But unfortunately, there’s still a scar left on all us from the snakebite passed down to us by our first parents, and a residue of the serpent’s venom still lingers. There is a tug within us to climb over others in our rise to greatness, to exalt ourselves at others’ expense, even to trip up others so we can get ahead. We are tempted to let others take the rap so we might look good, to leave others holding the bag while we escape, to leave the dirty dishes for others lest, God forbid, we do more than our “fair share.”
If we are to be followers of Jesus and achieve true greatness, we must renounce placing any limits on how much we are willing to give or whom we are willing to serve. The one who is greatest and most like God is not the one who appears on the cover of People magazine. It is the one who will go to the greatest lengths for those who are least worthy and least grateful.