Most every day I walk my boys to the bus stop. We talk each morning about the day to come. We double-check homework. We might say a prayer for the day. Sometimes we play with a football or kick the soccer ball as we wait. But you can be certain of one thing every morning, as sure as the sun rising and even more assured than that big yellow bus rounding the corner: Those boys will ask me for money.
Who knew that elementary school could be so expensive? If it’s not lunch money they need, then it’s for extra milk, or ice cream, or some over-priced fundraiser, or a book fair, or a snack after school, or for orphans in the Congo. I thought I would get a reprieve from dropping the big money until college; or at least until high school. These boys are nickel-and-diming me to death.
On one recent morning one of my sons was harassing me for five bucks. He wanted to buy some cheesy poster or a bag of pencil erasers or a timeshare in the Caymans. I can’t remember which. I opened my wallet and there was a single, crisp five-dollar-bill. It was all the cash I had. So, in a brilliant flash of fatherly wisdom, I decided this was a teachable moment in sacrifice and gratitude. I took out the five-spot and held it before my son. “This is all the money I have to my name,” I pleaded. And in a masterful appeal to the boy’s altruistic side I said, “You can have this last five dollars if you really need it. But if you take it, I will have no money for lunch today. I will be hungry until I get home tonight.”
The bus pulled up to the stop with flashing lights and an open door. My son looked at me, looked at the bus, snatched the five-dollar-bill and rode away. I’m not planning on receiving any nursing home visits from him in my golden years.
There is one simple truth about every person: We are selfish. Warlords, successful Fortune 500 CEOs, groveling yes-men and impulsive third-graders all operate with the same premise, the same self-centeredness: To get what they want, damn the consequences to others. Followers of Jesus are not immune to this. Once, two of Jesus’ disciples made an incredibly bigheaded request. “When your kingdom comes,” the brothers James and John Zebedee asked Jesus, “May we sit in places of honor, one on your right and the other on your left?”
These men anticipated the day when Jesus would rule the world with all political, economic, religious and military power at his disposal. He would sit on his throne in the capital city of the world. Where did they see themselves fitting into this mix? At the summit. They wanted to be the VPs, the trusted advisors, the seconds in command at the top of the heap. This request threw the entire ensemble of disciples into chaos. The other Jesus-followers lost their cool with the two brothers. But I don’t think they were filled with righteous indignation. Hardly.
James and John had simply beat the others to the punch. The group’s anger flowed from the fact that James and John might just get what everyone else had been privately wishing for. But the Zebedee request is not a display of instinctive conceit. It is a demonstration of ignorance; for the kingdom of God does not operate by the rules of this world. The kingdom of God has no place for selfishness, for egoism, and the pandering agendas of the want-to-bes.
Jesus responds to his disciples with these words: “When people get a little power, see how quickly it goes to their heads. But it’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must become a slave.”
A servant? A slave? Wait a second! A servant doesn’t have any rights! A slave doesn’t get what they want! These are stations in life where one gets abused and mistreated, exploited and ignored! Exactly. For this is the upside down way in which the kingdom of God breaks free in the world, through the weakness and vulnerability of those who choose to imitate the Christ who gave himself up for others.