By Matt Gordon
17 Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “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.”
22 “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.
23 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.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 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. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 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.”
We’ve all got it. You are prideful. You are more prideful than you can even fathom. And you are trapped by it!
Even now, your impulse is to click away or to argue against that accusation. I know that is my reaction, at least. When someone calls me proud, I proudly disagree. Usually with great offense taken and secret vendetta formed against my accuser.
It surrounds and suffocates and subverts. And the real trouble with it, is that it makes us blind. To truth, to reality, pride allows us to continue on a path to destruction, like walking into denser and denser fog. Only we don’t see the fog or the way in which it is limiting our vision for truth, for we are focused not on our surroundings but on ourselves, like one walking with head in phone and phone in selfie mode.
That is the picture we see in this passage of Matthew.
Jesus gathers his trusted friends and shares the plan. “Here it is, fellas. I’m gonna die. But first I’ll be scorned and beaten and mocked. Hands in. Team!”
Not the pep talk they expected; not the plan they would have put in place.
And forever pride is dogged in making us expect what we want to expect and hear what we want to hear. The words of Jesus are lost on them, as evident by the next interaction.
The mother of two of the disciples approaches Jesus and asks if her sons can have more playing time. I mean, that isn’t what she asks, but in effect it is. Can you imagine your mother approaching God and asking such a selfish, tone-deaf thing of Him?
Oh, wait. I can imagine just that because that is how I pray for my kids. I don’t come right out and say it, but what I want for my children is money. Fame. Acclaim. Success. Jesus tells me all about his humble plan, and it goes in one ear and out the other. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great. Go and die. Serve. All that. But about the raise I want. It is really for the kids. I really, really want Disney for them. Not for me. For them. Maybe Universal too, and prices are going up, Lord, so . . .”
That is what it is.
What I value is precisely what this woman values, what the disciples value. We constantly assume it is better to be rich than poor—and that we deserve wealth. But even in the assumption that we deserve it, we are asserting that it is better. It is a value claim. We do the same with health, with power, with prestige. More, more, more. Me, me, me . . .
The ancient church adopted the notion of the seven deadly sins. This idea was favored and dismissed throughout different ages and denominations of Christendom. Ever controversial, there was even some disparity among lists of these “capital vices.” But one sin shows up on every list. One sin was considered the basis for all the others—for wrath and envy and greed and all the rest. Pride. Pride was and is the origin for every other sin. You are a glutton because you make a god of food, but you make a god of food because you first made a god of yourself. You envy your neighbor because you are first dismissive of a God who does things differently than you would: you who see yourself as the truer form of god via the self-deception of pride.
In the case of the disciples, they could not see the path to the cross because it was a path that gained power by losing it, it was a stooping to conquer through love, and stooping was for servants, not rulers. In their hearts they were already placed upon thrones, worthy to be worshiped.
That impulse to rule is telling in this passage. A well-meaning mother asked for what her boys—and all boys and girls—wanted. She didn’t ask if they could serve more, do more, love more, because that didn’t align with normative human desires. The desire is to rule, not serve. To have, not to have not.
Many of us want to follow Jesus to the throne, but pride prohibits us from participating in the cross. And to miss the death of self is to miss the resurrection of new self. The throne is a place to sit, to stop; but the cross? It is a way through, a path forward. It is active and right and pure and movement; it is life.
When we shake off pride, even momentarily, as Lent invites and prepares us to do, our eyes become opened to that life. One that is willing to serve, even to the point of suffering. One that is willing to lay down life, in order to take it up and give it away to others.
And when we follow Jesus in this way, we are majestically filled, made worthy of a greater wealth, one that doesn’t fade or decay.
While pride is the enabler of every destructive tendency we bring upon ourselves, humility is the great antidote. The picture of humility is a willingness to go on in love. To press forward even into a seemingly dark destiny. To walk toward the end of self for the sake of others. To turn the other cheek and surrender. To make peace and forgive. To replace outrage with mercy and comfort with justice. This radical humility, an offense to the modern world and an act of war upon the flesh, can be seen on a hillside cross pleading, “Father forgive them.” It can also be seen emerging from darkened tomb, carrying with it the light of hope and renewal and life abundant.
To pick up that life, we must let go of our own. We must see the other before we see ourselves. We cling to the cross and let go of everything that so easily entangles. Willingly, we become last, and in so doing, we live, free and forever, eyes open, treading lovingly fogless, prideless paths of passionate purpose.