Spirituality for Today – February 2011 – Volume 15, Issue 7

Achieving Greatness Through Service To Others

By Msgr. Frank C. Wissel, D.Min.

Be honest now. Have you ever fantasized about being great? I have. Something deep within us cries out to be recognized as somebody special. To get up front, to achieve. Or even to be close to someone who does. Such is the scenario when James and John make their request.

A photo of a blue sky with the sun's rays coming from behind the clouds

Now let's place ourselves in this scene: Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem, and he is walking a bit ahead of the disciples. The group senses that the plot has thickened.

Jesus is pensive, thoughtful, trying to conceive a way to tell them what this final pilgrimage to the Holy City is all about he decides to give it to them straight: "When we get to Jerusalem, I will be arrested, condemned, and executed. After three days I will arise." But James and John totally misread the whole situation.

As Jesus points out the most poignant thing he has ever said, they blundered in with a totally selfish agenda: "Teacher, we want you to do us a favor."

I find it refreshing that Mark tells the story so that the disciples don't come across as some kind of saints. Matthew reports that their mother asked Jesus for the places of privilege. Mark says that James and John did their own asking.

How totally insensitive Christian people can be. Jesus is walking ahead alone, struggling with the Messianic reality of what it means to be a suffering servant.

Misreading his struggling solitude for plans of the victory celebration, James and John decide that is time to make their request. At the most inopportune moment, they reveal that they have totally misunderstood the meaning of the mission. They haven't yet caught the truth about the nature of Jesus' mission. They are so wrapped up in their own need to be somebody that they aren't listening as Jesus explains their mission.

It is a common mistake. Anyone who has never made such a blunder would be welcome to throw the first stone. All of us have this need to be seen as someone important.

The problem is not in having the need. The problem occurs when we try to fill the need to in an invalid way. This passage makes clear that Jesus accepts their quest for identity. Then he seeks to redirect it: "Whoever must be great among you must be your servant…the son of Man came not to be served but to serve—and to give his life as a ransom."

Greatness has more to do with partnership than with prominence, position or power. Culture, whether the first or twenty first century, tends to confuse greatness with pedestals. Jesus associates greatness with partnership and ministry. Later he will himself pray: "Let this cup pass from me…" Now he asks them: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?"

At any ancient royal feast, it was the custom for the king to hand the cup to those who shared his table. It was a way of symbolizing partnership in the same cause. It was a way of saying: "We have shared the struggle of the kingdom together, let us now share the joy as well."

As they realized that the places at his left and right "when he came into his glory" were crosses, not honored seats at the dais, would they have been so eager to share his pilgrimage? In essence, what was Jesus saying?

A famous author explained it as: "The name of my mission is partnership with God in the great work of redemption. It is a pilgrimage, not a banquet. We are here not to receive but to give. As for me, it will cost my life. If you go with me, it may cost yours too. Can you drink the cup of partnership with me?" Jesus is asking James and John if they are willing to submerge themselves in the mission of God with Him. Are you willing to be immersed – baptized – in grief, in pain, rejection, death, even a grave in the earth, because you believe in what God is trying to do through us?

In God's kingdom, greatness is in service. This kind of living is of course easier to talk about than it is to achieve. It calls for a kind of commitment, a quality of life that for many of us, perhaps most of us, is in short supply.

There is no way to fake it: it has to be real and honest. I guess the key word would be integrity, and let's face it: integrity is a hot item to find in today's world. Many do not even pretend to want it . "That's old fashioned." "Nobody tells the truth anymore." "Nobody serves the public anymore." Anything else is outdated.

Then there are those who say, "Integrity can come later. If I assert my integrity now. I may lose my chance for real greatness. I will keep my mouth shut, play the game, and then when I have ascended the mountain I want to climb, I'll begin operating out of a real desire to serve with integrity.

Jesus is saying to James and John what I feel he would like us to hear as well. The name of God's game is not accrual; it is renewal. Renewal of life, which come initially because "God so loved the world" you know the rest.

Renewal, which comes alive in my personality when I decide to give up prominence for partnership, authority and ambition for involvement, and selfishness for service. That's the kind of greatness God wants for us. Passionately involved, genuinely invested in caring about people, and doing our best to serve them.