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Jesus Says, "Be Great!"

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James and John were brave, albeit misguided, to ask to sit at Jesus' right and left in his kingdom. Jesus didn't rebuke their ambition, just their definition of greatness.

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Pastor Peter Metzger

Lent 4

Matthew 20:17-28

First Lutheran Church

Lake Geneva, WI

March 26, 2017

Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father” When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the 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 want to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus Says, “Be Great!”

Do you ever want to be great? Do you look at the people around you in your life and envy them because of their success or popularity? Do you find yourself wishing that you could be great like them?

I’ll tell you a little secret: pastors face that temptation all the time, whether it comes from listening to a dynamic preacher or seeing a compassionate counselor in action. We might get jealous of someone who knows everything about the Bible and church history, or a really effective administrator, i.e. someone who sets a vision for his congregation and reaches it. Sometimes it’s enough to make you feel that “I want to be great like that.”

What’s your idea of greatness? Is it starting your own business from the ground up and not only being viable but competitive or maybe even the premier place to do that kind of business? Is it being the kind of parent whose children excel at what they do and are respectful and obedient when they do it? Is it being respected in the community or even finding the approval of your own family?

What do you dream about? What would your internet search history reveal as your most sought-after item? What do you go to bed thinking about? What’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up?

Our dreams and our ideas of what it is to be great reveal a lot about us. The dreams and desires that we might have for our lives often dictate how we conduct ourselves in our lives. Do you want to be a professional soccer player or even just the best on your team? Then you’ll spend a lot of time on the pitch. Do you want to be financially independent? Then you might pick up a second job. Do you want to have a house fit for HGTV? Then you’ve probably been out in the yard for weeks already, picking up sticks and leaves and laying down seed.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be great – for having goals or dreams in life – but in our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is careful to explain that our idea of what greatness is can be wrong, and the way we go about becoming great is often a problem.

Be Careful to Define What Greatness Is

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him… “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”[1]

It seems that James and John set their sights pretty high. Are they asking to be ranked #1 and #2 of all the humans in heaven? Maybe, but would be presumptuous, even for them. What’s more likely is that they had a totally different – and wrong – understanding of what Jesus’ kingdom was.

Time after time during the 3 years of his ministry we see Jesus’ disciples demonstrate that they expected Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom. Even after Jesus rose from the dead, right before he ascended into heaven, they still asked, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”[2] They were looking for earthly greatness. They were looking for power, respect, authority, and they completely overlooked the prize that Jesus was offering them that was infinitely better than those things, which is why Jesus responds by saying, “You don’t know what you are asking.”[3]

Jesus had just finished explaining to them: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.”[4] Does that sound like much of a kingdom that you’d want to be part of?

So, what’s the deal? were the disciples stupid? Were they not listening? It seems so obvious! I’d like to think that we’d know better, but I have to wonder, because knowing my own heart, and talking to other sinners like me, I suspect that we often read God’s Word through the same rose-colored lenses.

Do you not believe that we could be that obtuse? Take a second and think of your last disappointment. How did it make you feel? Did the thought ever cross your mind that you deserved to get what you were denied? Were you left in clueless wonder as to why God would withhold that blessing from you? Then maybe your definition of greatness is different than God’s. James and John’s sure was.

They wanted to sit at the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom. They wanted to drink from his cup. They thought that that meant glory and honor. What they failed to realize was the pain and suffering that accompanied it. Jesus himself asked his father take the cup from him and now these two blowhards are boasting that they can handle what Jesus feared. They didn’t know what they were asking. They didn’t know what true glory looked like, so Jesus corrected them:

“You know that the 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 your slave…”[5]

God’s idea greatness does not look like the greatness that so many of us crave. So often we want to be served; we want to be treated with respect; we want the glory of recognition. Here, Jesus says that that’s what the godless do. But godly greatness is selflessness and love that puts the needs and concerns of others above our own self-interests, and the greatest example of that kind of greatness is Jesus:

“Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[6]

Jesus did not come to sit on a throne. He gave his up to hang on a cross. Jesus did not come to be honored and glorified. He came to mocked and ridiculed. Jesus did not come to build up his own cache. He came to show compassion and love, taking care of the needs of others, but most of all taking care of our sin.

We can be a lot like James and John – desiring something that God doesn’t promise and dreaming of things that God often denies us. We can so often crave the paltry pleasures of this life and ignore the true treasure that Christ came to give us. He ought to punish us for our blindness, to yell at us for our insolence, but what does he do instead? He reminds us of his sacrifice that ransomed us from our debt of sin. He gently tells us, “You don’t know what you’re asking for,” and then points us to the rightful object of our desire, i.e. his love and forgiveness, which are invaluable treasures, greater than the greatest things this world has to offer.

Be Careful to Do What Greatness Does

When we desire those things, then our behavior changes too. Then we don’t ask mom to ask Jesus for a favor. Then we don’t make our friends indignant by asking for something that only one of us can get.[7] When we set our dreams and desires on acquiring God’s gifts of forgiveness and salvation, then we stop incessantly chasing after accolades, accomplishments, promotions, degrees or dollars as if they were the things that make us great.

What makes you great is the love of God – both the love that God showed to you in Jesus and allows you to reign with him in heaven, and the love that he shows through you in your service to other people.

That was the hard lesson that Joseph learned, as we read in Genesis 37. God had revealed that he had great things in store for Joseph; he was going to make him the second-in-command in the most powerful empire in the world. Not for his own glory, but so that he would be in a position to serve the needs of others.

Joseph didn’t get that at first. He was proud and arrogant and rubbed it in to his brothers that they would someday bow down to him. So God humbled him, allowing him to be sold into slavery, to be falsely convicted of crimes he did not commit, and to be forgotten in the depths of Pharaoh’s prisons until he was ready. And as we look at the life of Joseph, we find that it was in his servitude to Potiphar and during his time in prison that he learned that service to others is God’s idea of greatness.

Sometimes that’s what it takes. Sometimes God takes earthly glory and greatness from us, to open our eyes to our own sinful desires and to teach us to desire godly greatness instead of earthly glory.

We may not be widely acclaimed in this world for our greatness, but by the grace of God we can nevertheless be considered great in God’s eyes when we serve others.

For me at least, that’s one of the things that stands out the most from this portion of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus does not rebuke James and John for desiring to be great. He rebukes them for their idea of what greatness is and does. Instead, Jesus enables us and even encourages us to desire to be great, but carefully explains that greatness is service, done in love for God and for our neighbor.

So, go ahead! Desire to be great! Dream big! But let your dreams be filled with godly greatness and let your lives be filled with loving service, out of thanks for the service that Jesus offered you. Amen.

  1. Matthew 20:20-21 ↑
  2. Acts 1:6 ↑
  3. Matthew 20:22 ↑
  4. Matthew 20:18-19 ↑
  5. Matthew 20:25-27 ↑
  6. Matthew 20:28 ↑
  7. Notice that the rest of the disciples shared James and John’s desire. They weren’t indignant because of James and John’s spiritual immaturity. They were indignant because James and John thought that they were better than them, which just goes to show their own spiritual immaturity and pride. ↑
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