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Tony's Reflection 82
What makes greatness?
King Louis XIV of France was probably one of the most ambitious men who ever lived. For Louis, God had chosen him and given him total authority and power over France. Whether it was religion, politics, warfare, or anything else, his word was law – literally. Some say he was called the “Sun King”, because he acted as if the world revolved around him. His greatness is hard to argue with. His reign of 72 years and 110 days is the longest ever recorded and the Palace of Versailles still stands as a monument to his glory and ambition.
In this week’s episode (
), we see Jesus giving yet another lesson on ambition and greatness. Jesus has all the power and greatness of King Louis XIV and more besides. Yet what he chose to do with it couldn’t have been more different. He came to earth as God’s king; he could have had anything he wanted. Yet the path he chose and the route he calls his followers to take, was so different from any monarch of this world.
James and John, two brothers among the Twelve, couldn’t get it. Neither did the remaining ten. Jesus’ way was so alien. The lessons Jesus had already given them just didn’t sink in. As our curtain rises, they are about to get an embarrassing revision session on “greatness”.
Dark foreboding has fallen on the Twelve as Jesus has been speaking bluntly about the gruesome death which is waiting for him at the other end of their journey to Jerusalem. What do you do with something so terrible, you just can’t handle it? You shut it away in the back of your mind. Lock it up. Throw away the key. Maybe it will go away.
That’s what James and John have done. Did they not understand? Could they not process it? We don’t know. Death, dying and crucifixion are now the last things on their minds.
They are still held in the iron grip of “Messiah fever”. Thoughts of Jesus marching into Jerusalem in triumph. The crowd adoring him. Doors of the palace thrown open. Jesus crowned as King. The Messiah revolution beginning.
Just wait until Jerusalem gets to see the deaf hearing, the lame walking… maybe even food for thousands out of thin air again, as a final encore. Jesus would be the universal centre of adulation. Of course, the kingdom and glory would be his, but there would be far too much work to do for Jesus all on his own.
He would need a right-hand man. And a left hand man, too.
Jesus had always encouraged the Twelve to ask. Anything. “Questions, favours,” he had said, “never be afraid to speak up.” He really liked it when people took him at his word. “Faith” he called it and it always delighted him.
Now was the time for “faith”, they thought. They would ask him what was on their mind. James and John sidle up privately to Jesus. They don’t want the remaining Ten to hear this. That would be seriously embarrassing.
They pluck up their courage and take a deep breath: “When God sets you up as king in Jerusalem, can we be your number one and number two?” they ask.
If Jesus had already promised them the top jobs, the deal would be done before the others knew anything about it. They would be safe and secure. Careers and prosperity taken care of. Not bad for a couple of fishermen.
Jesus’ mind is elsewhere. He is straining every mental and spiritual sinew to turn his thoughts away from the coming torture on the cross and to focus on what it will achieve. This alone made the gruesome prospect bearable. Their question is a crass intrusion into his struggle.
“Can you really follow me? Can you suffer like I am going to?” asks Jesus.
Strange interview questions, for the top jobs in his kingdom. Eager to please and sensing only one right answer, James and John say they can.
“Good,” says Jesus, “because the time is coming when you will do exactly that.”
Before the brothers have chance to question what Jesus is seeing in their future, their ambition is dealt a hammer blow.
“The top jobs aren’t yours to grab, or even mine to give. Father God has them earmarked already.”
James and John wished the ground would swallow them. But it didn’t. They skulk away, hoping no one has heard this exchange. If only… unbeknown to the brothers, there have been eavesdroppers.
The remaining Ten soon get to hear how James and John had tried to steal a march on them. They are incensed.
An ugly quarrel erupts. A “smash the gates down and run right in” invasion of Jesus’ thoughts, but one he is not going to ignore. It seems the other Ten had hopes of the top positions, too. It is not just James and John who need a lesson on greatness and ambition.
Jesus breaks up the argument.
“I’m not interested in “top jobs”,” says Jesus. “I’m only about one thing right now. Giving my life up, to set people free. I’m here as a servant, not a sovereign. If you want to get anywhere in my kingdom, you need to serve as well.”
Ambition is turned upside down. Be eager to be great, yes. But get that greatness, not by grabbing, not by pushing yourself forward, but by humbly serving all around you. Just like Jesus…