During our primary school days in Nigeria years ago, the last day of the academic term is usually spectacular because “holidays are coming” as we would often sing and more significantly, teachers announce grades publicly. On such days, it is normal to see some successful children rejoicing, and one could also see others crying because they could not measure up to the tops or because they made the bottom of the class list.
The inclination to be first or more celebrated than others seems to be a significant part of our human nature and nurture. The world itself runs on competitive tracks that is why we hear about First, Second, and Third World countries. In competitive sports like the soccer world cup, only one winner emerges. In the classrooms, teachers measure intelligence through the grades they give to the students in their tests and examinations, though some people would argue that examinations may not be the ultimate tests of knowledge.
Furthermore, we attach the word BEST or GREAT to people, events, places, and things to show how exclusively important they are to us more than others. We often desire to be the first, and the most outstanding, but we often lack the requisite knowledge on how to achieve real and enduring greatness. Most motivational speakers would usually tell people to dream big and aim at the best, but only few would remind them about starting small or humble beginnings.
In the Gospel Reading today (Mark 10:35-45), the sons of Zebedee, James and John approach our Lord Jesus Christ for a very delicate and direct request. They asked if they could sit one at his right and the other at his left in his GLORY, that is after his suffering and death.
Our Lord answers by asking them if they would be able to drink the cup that he is to drink and the baptism he is to receive, and they agreed. He further tells them that though, they may be able to drink the cup and receive the baptism, the positions at his right and left are not for him to apportion as God exclusively reserved them for specific individuals.
The request of James and John infuriated the other ten apostles as they became angry with the Zebedee sons for their rapaciousness and greed. Sensing the rising tension, our Lord summons the twelve for a quick instruction. Summarily, he tells them that among the Gentiles those in authority lord it over those under them, but that should not be the case among them.
Our Lord further tells them that whoever wishes to be first among them should be the servant (slave) of all just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
The boldness of James and John in the narrative is very striking. They were looking beyond the present to the future. In their calculation, the resurrection would bring about a glorious time, and since there are twelve of them, there could be a struggle about the position of deputies to the Lord in his glory. James and John felt that it would be a smart move to sign up for those positions before they become contentious and following the rhythms of their ambitions, the right and left positions should be for them; the Zebedees.
Notice that James and John were ready to drink the cup and receive the baptism. The cup refers to suffering. We could recall that during his agony in the garden, our Lord prayed about the cup he was to drink (Matt. 26:39). The word Baptism comes from the Greek “Baptizo” which means to immerse which relates to being buried. James and John were not scared about the suffering. Instead, they were more concerned about the glory.
The Tiny Humble Steps to Greatness
The Sons of Zebedee believed that they could attain greatness via smartness but from the Lord’s instructions, greatness is attainable through “smallness” which entails service to others. In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-9), St. Paul writes the following about our Lord Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.
From the above timeless description, we learn that humility goes before greatness. Furthermore, humility includes the readiness to accept suffering for the benefit of others. The First Reading (Isaiah 53:10-11) tells us about the suffering servant of God (pre-figuring our Lord Jesus Christ) whose suffering justified many.
To achieve greatness, a humble beginning is a vital key. Most great persons and establishments in the world started small. Abraham, the father of great nations, began with years of childlessness. Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel, barely survived as a baby. The savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ was born on a manger meant for young animals and bore the identity of Nazareth where nothing good could come (John 1:46).
The first horseless carrier that brought the inspiration for motor vehicles could only travel one kilometer per hour. It is a well-known story that one of the greatest electronic companies in the world, Apple, started in a garage. In life, you need to stoop to conquer and to jump higher you need to bend lower.
In our day and age, we still have people seeking various leadership positions not for the sake of serving the need of others but for self-aggrandizement and the pleasure of their respective households. Any Leadership that does not serve the people is tyranny.
Are we not repeating and multiplying the selfish ambition of the sons of Zebedee who sought the positions in Christ’s glory as a form of victory over the other apostles? There will be a need for us to understand leadership as a humble service to others. The Centurion who approached our Lord Jesus Christ to ask for the healing of his servant (Matt 8: 5-13), remains a ponderable example of leadership through service.
As we encounter the Lord today in the Holy Eucharist, let us remember to take those tiny humble steps that would lead us to the glorious positions God has prepared for us not the ones we want. Have a great Sunday and a beautiful week ahead.