Another day in Lent, another Gospel challenge. Today – underachieving by design! Yes, you are thinking, “what is she on about now?” You know me, sometimes I like to kid – even, perhaps especially, during Lent.
Achievement. Our world seems pretty much built around it. I worked in the media business for 27 years. My first job was as what was then called (does it even exist now?) “sales assistant.” What did I do? I was a glorified secretary, working for a salesperson. In 1980, this was more likely a man than a woman. If you did your job really well, you would be promoted to – wow, I can’t even remember the title. In was the over-glorified secretary I guess, because you worked for the sales manager, and you supervised the other sales assistants. Yes, I did get this job and I was an incredible disaster at it. At that age I did not have a clue about servant leadership, or that such a thing existed – I was just not ready for any of it.
Today’s Gospel is very clear, if you seek greatness, be willing to serve, not lord your greatness over people. In this passage from Matthew, the mother of the sons of Zebedee approaches Jesus and asks, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Who does not understand that impulse? We want to do well, we want our kids to do well. That is pretty normal. Yet…
Jesus notes that they have no idea what they are asking for in his reply. He goes on to say that a difficult cup will be given to them, and asks if they can drink from it. Of course everyone says the usual “yes-of-course-I’ve-got-this!” Blame our enthusiasm or our ego, or some toxic cocktail of both, but we often imagine that we can do more than is possible. What is it that we’ve “got?” And more importantly, why do we want it?
We are not meant to be underachievers. It is not a crime to want to do better in life. It is good to want to use all of our gifts and talents, be able to live healthy, stable lives, and pursue our dreams. What we do with our achievement is what matters. Are we grateful to God for giving us a good life? Do we put our time, talent and treasure at the service of God’s people? Do we use what we have to lift ourselves up at the expense of others? Do we create circumstances that keep others down? Remind them of our “greatness” and their lack of it? Are we willing to serve at the bottom in order to lead from the top?
It is easy to read this Gospel and get tied up in the power drama unfolding before us, and in Jesus’ replies, but we ignore the first portion at our own risk:
As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem,
he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves,
and said to them on the way,
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests
and the scribes,
and they will condemn him to death,
and hand him over to the Gentiles
to be mocked and scourged and crucified,
and he will be raised on the third day.”
It is not a mistake that this story about jostling for position, even if with the best of intentions, begins with Jesus clarity. He takes the Twelve aside, he says where they are going, he says what will happen – that he will be condemned to death and be crucified. And he adds that he will rise again. This sets it all up!
Every moment of our life, from our conception onward is set on an unswerving course to death. It is guaranteed, it is a great unifier of us all. We. Will. All. Die. Clear? Clear. Jesus, when talking to the sons of Zebedee and other disciples mentions the cup… this is about accepting death. In order to rise again, are we willing to serve along the way? Are we seeking greater roles in order to be of service, not of burden, to those around us? All those things are woven into the fabric of our life of rising and dying in Christ.
Our Lenten journey is happening whether we are ready for this or not. Face it, who is ready? Not most of us. Our worldly and often petty desires get in the way. Lent offers a chance to clear the cobwebs of desire and to remember who we are as followers of Jesus. And even He asked to have the cup pass in the end, even if for just a moment.
Achievement is not a bad thing. Underachieving should not be our goal. We must remember that the cup will be consumed at some point. Jesus asks if we are ready and willing – and Jesus will always be with us to help carry the crosses of our life that will lead to our own death. It is like the old joke, “everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die!” How true, how true! And here we are, confronted with this. Can’t we just get a promotion and be happy?
Like the picture says, the tallest blade will be cut first. We are not the masters of our own achievement, and that currying for favor is often a recipe for disaster. How can we be who God calls us to be? Servants, leaders, and ultimately servants – mindful always of where we are headed and willing to go.