Day 19 (Wednesday) - Matthew 20:20-28

Artwork by George Courage

Artwork by George Courage

Try to picture what your high school looked like.  

You might have a lot of great memories there, and maybe a few hard ones.  You might remember who the prom queen was and where she sat in the cafeteria. You might be able to tell me where the football team sat, or the band kids, or that cute guy or girl.

In so many high schools, where you sit in the cafeteria can tell a lot about you.  

At my high school, where you sat meant everything. At lunch, everyone sat outside on a big grassy Hill and the nerdy kids always sat at the very, very bottom of the Hill.  The Mormons had their own enclave.  The musicky kids, the Honors kids, the drama kids.  Everyone had their own tribe and place somewhere on the Hill.  And at the very, very top on their own little grassy knoll, sat all the most popular kids.  

This is where the captain of the football team, the homecoming queen, the student body president - anybody who was anybody - sat.

These were the important kids in my school.  These were the kids who had made it.  We all wanted them to like us. We wanted to hang out with them.  We all wanted to be invited to sit with them.  At my school, where you sat meant everything.  

And wherever we sat, whether we were Top-sitters, Bottom-Dwellers, or In-Betweens, most of us spent a lot of time and effort working for a seat higher up on The Hill.  Sitting further up on the hill was hard.  It took strategy. We had to wear the right clothes and drop the right names and know the right people and say the right things.

It was almost like we were playing a Game. We had to move in just the right way and be seen at all the right events and know all the social rules, all the complex ins and outs of how to impress each other but look natural doing it. And even when we got to the Top, it was a Game that kept us working to fit in but stand out. It kept us working for significance, working for acceptance, because there was always someone who could pass us by. 

And anyone who’s ever played a Game like this knows it’s a hard Game to win and an easy Game to lose.  

I’d be willing to bet that like it or not, each of us has found ourselves in a Game like this one in some way or another - the Game of success, of status, of standing out. And it starts early.  We jostle for position on the playground. And then in the lunch room. And then in the academic world, and even into adulthood, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our families.

Jesus and his contemporaries lived in this kind of Game to the extreme.  They lived under something that anthropologists call the Law of Limited Good. Back then, people believed that everything was in limited supply. And I mean, everything.  Tangibles you could buy in the marketplace - things like gold and gifts, spices like mint, dill, and cumin - all could be weighed and measured and bought and sold. But they also believed that intangibles were in limited supply too. Things that couldn’t be seen could still become a commodity to be earned or won or traded or lost - things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  One man’s gain in mint or mercy was another man’s loss of it.

And so naturally, people in Jesus’ culture lived in a world of constant competition, of constantly keeping score, because if your neighbor was doing well at something, then it depleted the supply for everyone else.  It was like there was some big huge vat of Goodness floating around and if your brother somehow got some of it, there wasn’t as much Goodness left for you.  

For instance, if your colleague has a nice watch, there are fewer nice watches for you.  If your neighbor has amazing taste, there’s less good taste for you.  If your friend has a strong GPA, there are fewer good grades for you.

It was a culture of constant scorekeeping, of sizing each other up, of challenging each others’ claim to success.

First century dinner parties were a great way to see this play out. Dinner guests would sit at low tables that were shaped like a Horseshoe. The host of the party would sit in the center of the Horseshoe. And everyone else would sit at the table in order of importance. The place of greatest honor would be the seat to the right of the host and the next place of honor was the seat to the left of the host. The next place of honor was next to that person and so on and so forth until we reach the end of the Horseshoe, the boonies, the sticks, the place of the least honor. This is where all the Nobodies, the Nerdy Kids, the Bottom-Dwellers sat.

The people sitting in the highest places of honor got the best cuts of meat, ate on the finest plates, and were served the best wine. This was like filet mignon, duck l’orange, really vintage wine.

Those at the bottom got Sloppy Joe’s and Diet Sprite. Anthropologists have another word for this kind of culture.  They call it “agonism,” which comes from the Greek word that means “contestant.”  Every man and woman was a contestant and every social interaction was a contest.  And it kept them working constantly for approval, for status, for worth.

Where you sat meant everything.

It’s not hard to imagine that in a world like that one, envy and insecurity could very easily creep in.  It sounds exhausting, right?

So our passage this morning finds Jesus in this world, and he's walking with his disciples to Jerusalem when the mother of two of them approach him with a question. We know a little bit about her sons, these two brothers. They had a fishing business and probably came from some money. Scripture seems to indicate that they were loud-mouthed and had fiery tempers. 

And we also know that James and John were caught up in the Game.

Their mother makes a big request.  She asks Jesus to give her sons the most prominent, important positions you could get, seats right next to Jesus at the dinner table once he’s king. Essentially, James and John are slapping their sticker on some of the limited supply of greatness. They even skip past all the social niceties and unwritten rules common to their day and cut straight to the point:

Jesus, Jesus. We have a favor to ask you. At the end of the day, will you give us the biggest cut of the Glory?

It would have been one of the most presumptuous requests imaginable.  

But that desire for greatness, that desire for glory, is not unique to James and John.  And it didn't start out as all wrong either.  In fact, the desire to do great things in the world is God-given; it was put into us by a God invites us into a story that is beyond ourselves.  But at some point for many of us, if not all of us, the God-given desire to do great things on God's behalf gets warped by this toxic blend of greed and fear and shame that leads us to desire power and glory not for God and God’s kingdom, but for ourselves. And the greatness we were created for, the success we were created for, gets mangled by other desires - desires to build our own kingdom, to see our own name in lights. For us, it’s not always enough to just be part of God’s greater story. So many of us want to be extraordinary. Perfect. Enviable.  

We want those around us to look at us in awe and exclaim: 

How does he do it?  How does she pull it all off?  Amazing!

The irony is that for most of us, this Game that keeps us working for greatness isn’t so much driven by arrogance as it is a pervasive sense of inadequacy, that unless we prove ourselves, we won’t matter. During an interview, pop icon Madonna, said this about her drive to succeed:

Madonna, 1990

Madonna, 1990

"I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy....My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre, being nobody."

How tragic, right?  And for many of us, a little familiar?

The Law of Limited Good is as present today as it was then. And when we’re caught up in this Game, we end up assessing and comparing ourselves, our marriages, our families, our careers, against our culture’s ideals of perfection, against how we think life is supposed to be or how our bodies are supposed to look or how our families are supposed to act. It doesn’t take too long living in our culture before we can start to believe that unless we’re extraordinary, unless we stand out, we’re not living a meaningful life, that unless we show that we’re a Somebody, then we might just be a Nobody. 

I do want to be clear. Competition in and of itself is not a bad thing. But competition poisons our souls when it’s driven by envy or when it leads us to insecurity or when how well we’re doing becomes the foundation for our sense of worth.

If you need any hints as to where this Game creeps up in your own life, all you have to do is start paying attention to where you’re comparing yourself with others. Research shows that we typically compare ourselves with others in the areas where we feel most concerned about our own inadequacy, because if I’m questioning my own worth, I can convince myself that at least I’m doing better than you.

How does Jesus respond to the brothers' request?

"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"

Jesus is inviting James and John to share in his suffering. He knows that true greatness comes from servanthood and sacrifice to God and to others. 

“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

James and John don't realize what he's asking. In Jesus’ day, kings would have what they called “cupbearers.” It was one of the most prestigious and influential positions possible, because it was the cupbearer’s job to taste test the king’s cup just in case someone had poisoned it. And because of the importance of the task, that position was usually reserved for the king’s most honored and trusted friends. 

It's likely that they think he’s invited them to be his cupbearers, his most trusted companions, to share in his glory.

So Jesus clarifies. 

Whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else....

He's inviting them to drink the poisoned cup alongside him, to die to the hierarchy and be raised to a new way of being they've never imagined.  He's telling them to stop playing the Game.  

Notice that Jesus never says it’s wrong to be a leader. He never condemns the desire to do great things. Instead, Jesus defines greatness on his own terms. Jesus was calling his disciples to a life of self-denial, of sacrifice, of service. He was calling them to die to their own version of greatness and replace it with a desire for God to be Great in the world.

There will always be someone else to beat or impress or surpass in our culture’s Game of greatness and no amount of work, no amount of success will ever be enough. Only God’s greatness will, lived out fully in us.

Pastor Brynn Harrington

Consider:

What do you want to do greatly? Where do you want to excel? Be the best? What motivates that desire? Healthy striving or fear of inadequacy and missing out?

Prayer:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other, living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

Embody:

At dinner time tonight, take out your fanciest cup and fill it with some vinegar. When your meal is complete and after you have given thanks for it, take a small sip from the cup. As you taste the bitterness of the vinegar, remember that Christ willingly drank from the cup of suffering for our salvation.

Pastor Aaron Engler


Endnotes:

  1. Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Serenity Prayer.”
  2. Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology.
  3. Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly.
  4. Camery-Hoggatt, Jerry, Irony in the Gospel of Mark.