Alexander the Great was born in the year 356 BCE. He was the son of a powerful king – his father Phillip II. So he inherited a strong kingdom in Greece, and one of the most powerful armies on the planet. But it wasn’t enough. Alexander wanted more. So, he took that powerful army and marched south and east. Through northeast Africa. Through Persia. Into India, defeating all in his path. But it wasn’t enough.
In the year 323, Alexander just about had it all. Incredible military conquests. Cities named after him. Unprecedented wealth and power. But it wasn’t enough.
He began to develop an incredible sense of fear and even paranoia that out there somewhere was someone who didn’t respect him enough. That out there somewhere was something he didn’t have, hadn’t acquired, hadn’t possessed. He planned to march further east, to capture all of India and march, as he put it, “until the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea.” His end game was nothing short than world domination. Every scrap of land. Every human heart. Until he reached that point, it wasn’t enough.
Alexander was the not the first, nor the last to live with this as his motto. Walter Wink writes about what he calls the Domination System of the world. He suggests that there has been in the world – since the rise of the conquest state of Mesopotamia in 3000 BCE – a yearning for this “Greatness.” Alexander was a pawn in this system. It is the way of never quite enough. Never quite enough power. Never quite enough winning. Never quite enough glory. Never quite enough hierarchical ranking. Never quite enough lording over those who are beneath. Never quite enough domination and violence. And we see it throughout the history books – Napoleon, Hitler, even to today’s leaders – those who model their lives after Alexander and his definition of Greatness. For them, and the Domination System by which they live, there is never enough money or power or prestige or attention that they can have. Meanwhile, they live in rather immature and gripping fear and paranoia every moment of their lives…wondering if someone has something that they want, or someone has something more than they have, or someone out there doesn’t give them enough honor or glory. Never quite enough.
And while most of us are probably not the next Napoleon or Hitler, we still buy, so many of us into that Domination System. We cherish its values. We live by its rules. We become a part of that system when we buy into those for whom domination is the ultimate value. When we worship them or put them up on a pedestal. When we excuse their behavior…after all “boys will be boys.” Deep down, Wink says, we know that this is not the best way to live – we learned as much when we were in kindergarten! – but we fall into this lie that somehow being adult is this endless striving for more money, more power, more prestige, more dominion over others. We strive for these things personally. We emulate, honor, excuse, even worship those who seem to have them. And we get trapped into that fear that we will not have enough…be enough. It is a system of scarcity and fear.
Jesus knew of this Domination System all too well. Three hundred and fifty years later, Jesus would have known the legacy of Alexander the Great. By then, the Greeks had been replaced by the Romans. But the story was the same. It is a powerful irony: Alexander lived 32 years devoted to this system of Domination and a certain definition of “greatness.” But then a man who lived almost exactly the same number of years as Alexander showed up and preached a very different set of values. Had a very different assumption of what “great” meant.
If you remember last week, I told you what was coming. When Jesus sat down these little children in front of the disciples, he told them “this is what greatness looks like.” He taught the disciples first, then he taught the crowds – using the same object lesson: be like these children. They will teach you what greatness is all about. Today’s passage is sixteen verses later…surely the disciples haven’t already forgotten his message, right?
Wrong. Again, Jesus predicts his death. But immediately, as if they weren’t even listening, here come James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, with a question. Now, my guess is that most of you when you were young tried this trick that James and John tried on your parents. You wanted to ask them something that you knew that they would say no to. So, you got sneaky, “I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to say yes to it, no matter what it is.” Has. That. Ever. Worked? In the history of us trying to get our way with people, has that trick ever worked? Of course not! And it didn’t work with Jesus, either. He asked the question that always comes – 100% of the time – afterwards: “well, what do you want?”
James and John look at each other, disappointed that their trick didn’t work, and ask their question, right after Jesus tells them to model themselves after the humility of children: “will you make us number one and number two in your glory?”
[facepalm by Jesus]
The Two-way this week had some great insight. They knew that some scholars think that Zebedee – James and John’s father – was a relatively rich man: he had multiple fishing boats and servants. And so, the Two-way wondered, whether it was the fact that they thought maybe they deserved more attention in glory, because they gave up more to follow Jesus, or just because they were used to getting their own way. Walter Wink would agree – they were so tied into this system of Domination that it was the only way they knew to operate.
So, like Alexander and all of those locked into that system, they were motivated by fear. Look back to the first couple of verses I read: the followers were “afraid.” I first read that and it didn’t make sense. There wasn’t anything in the context that they should be afraid of. But then I realized that of course there was. Jesus is telling them that he is leaving, about to be killed. The security of having him by their side is about to be lost. Fear was blinding James and John – and all of the followers. They were terrified of what was going to happen. And because of their fear, they were trying to buy a ticket of security. “Jesus, we want to be taken care of. Will you assure us?”
And it wasn’t just the disciples. As Dana Childers reminds us, “we all have a little Zebedee DNA in us.” Each and every one of us has to face the reality that we are not that different than the disciples in this way. We, too, buy into the Domination System of the world. We, too, are motivated by fear. We, too, have this paranoia that we haven’t done enough and so we sneak up to Jesus and ask in the bravest voice possible, “will we be okay?” I think that Alexander and Napoleon and Hitler and all of them – powerful and prestigious as they seem – are really just scared children. Will we have enough? Will we be enough?
Look at what Jesus says in response. It has two parts, woven together. A teaching. And a blessing.
The teaching looks like it has every other time: Jesus reminds them what his kingdom is really about. It’s not about the system of Domination that suggests that you need to have power and lord it over others. Again, it is Walter Wink that suggests that what Jesus is doing here is giving them an alternative to the Domination System. He is telling them that there is another way. A way of fierce vulnerability. The way of courage in the face of Domination. The way of denial. The way of welcome. The way of True Greatness.
Jesus’ way is not just another way. It is a better way! Because Jesus doesn’t just chastise the disciples – he blesses them. Look at verse 39. Jesus tells James and John that yes, they will drink from the same cup and they will be baptized with the same baptism. Knowing the rest of the story, that James and John and the rest of the disciples will be killed, that sounds like a warning doesn’t it? “You are going to die, too!”
But Charles Campbell suggests that this is not a warning, but a blessing: “You are right. You are able. You will not always be motivated by your fears. You will not always be slaves to this broken system of Domination. You will not always need my assurance that you are going to be okay. Because you will stand up to that system of Domination. You will proclaim a better way. You will take up your own crosses and live a life of service and sacrifice. You will be better than the way of the world, and they will look to you and be amazed by your fierce vulnerability. You will be able to stand up to all the vile threats of the world and you will defeat the system of Domination. Because you will tell it that it can torture you, mock you, spit on you, and even kill you, but it does not have ultimate power over you! You are able!” Jesus blesses James and John with these words of power, and though it takes some time, they live into that blessing.
Let me suggest that Jesus is doing the same for us. Woven together is a teaching and a blessing.
Jesus teaches us the truth about True Greatness. Being great means that you will serve others. Greatness means you will do THE MOST for others, that you will sacrifice MORE for others, that you will receive LESS than others. So being the greatest means that you will be the most debased, lowest considered, weakest, smallest, and most reliant. Number one and two in greatness means first and second in the LINK server line. Means first and second to schlep cots for Family Promise. Means first and second to clean the toilets at the Community Shelter. Means first and second to be called at 2:00 in the morning on the Willow emergency abuse help line. Means first and second arrested for protesting patterns of domination destroying the environment. Means first and second in the 100-degree heat driving nails on the roof of the next Habitat house. Means first and second…in service. And it doesn’t mean first and second in all of these places so that you can post it on Facebook and tell everyone how awesome you are. It doesn’t mean first and second to show off to the world how much we sacrifice. It means humility, even humiliation, for the sake of the Kingdom. If you want to be great, that’s what it will have to take.
It’s a hard teaching. But it comes with a blessing. Because just like Jesus told James and John, you are able:
- You are able to live a better way than the Domination that the world lives by.
- You are able to stand up to the worldly powers that tell you that you don’t have enough money or power or authority.
- You are able to overcome your fears and your paranoia that you don’t have enough, that you aren’t enough.
- You are able to overcome your immature fear that tells you, “be afraid of new ideas or new people, because their presence threatens or weakens you in some way.”
- You are able to demonstrate fierce love, fierce vulnerability.
- You are able, and not just to sneak up and try and talk Jesus into loving you.
- You are able. You are able because Christ makes you able.
The other night at the Two-Way, someone brought up a hymn based on this passage. And I didn’t know it, at least not well. So someone suggested that they sing it…and they did. From memory, just about everyone in the room sang from their hearts. There was something that touched them about those words. Blessed them about those words. And it was a holy moment as they shared that blessing:
Are ye able,” said the Master,
“To be crucified with me?”
“Yea,” the sturdy dreamers answered,
“To the death we follow Thee.”
Lord, we are able. Our spirits are Thine.
Remold them, make us, like Thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.
May we receive and live out that blessing. We are able, because Christ makes us able. To love, but not as the world loves. To welcome, in ways the world doesn’t understand. To true greatness, in ways the world can only stand by and watch in amazement. Today, may you know that you are able. Because Christ has made you able.