Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “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?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Chances are good that you didn’t want to be an actuary or a coal miner (no offense if that is your current vocation).
When I ask my 5- and 3-year-old daughters what they want to be when they grow-up, they describe epic ambitions to be doctors, Olympic athletes, police officers, astronauts, and Disney princesses. Like every other kid, my daughters want to be great. They want to save the world. They want to be a hero. Do you remember what it felt like to desire greatness the way a child does?
As we grow up, life and experience may cause our desire for greatness to diminish, but I don’t think it ever goes away. Case in point? Today’s Scripture reading, featuring James and John’s request to sit at the left and right hand of Jesus in heaven. The desire for greatness planted in James and John’s hearts long ago had not gone away. Here they are as grown men clamoring for the chance to be viewed for all eternity as the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
You and I may not be making that exact same request of Jesus today, but I think we all wrestle with the ambition to be seen as great, powerful, successful, and influential compared to those around us. The question is, is our desire for greatness inherently sinful? Or is it simply misdirected?
Over the next two weeks, we will take a closer look at this passage in Mark, and the surprising fact that Jesus doesn’t condemn the disciples (or our) desire for greatness. In fact, he encourages it. But in the same breath, Jesus radically redefines what true greatness is, giving us a valuable lesson as we lean ambitiously into our careers.