A New Standard for Greatness

Lily Tomlin once said, “I always wanted to be somebody.  Now I realize I should have been more specific.”

In Mark 10, brothers James and John are very specific about whom they want to be.  They want to be somebody, all right.  They want to achieve greatness.  They want to be the ones sitting at the right hand of Jesus when he establishes his kingdom.  You might say they are practicing the age-old art of looking out for “number one.”  The only surprise in this picture is the absence of Peter.  But then, he probably thought he was above having to ask, his place no doubt already assured.

The context is interesting.  Jesus had been predicting tough times ahead.  Is it fear that motivates the brothers’ obsessive pursuit of greatness?  Do we sometimes react to fear by becoming more ambitious, hoping to find a secure place in this world through greater wealth or influence?

I suppose most of us would expect Jesus’ reaction to be, “Give it up, you’re way out of line.”

Except that isn’t what he says.  He doesn’t say “Don’t be ambitious, don’t seek greatness.”  Jesus is a realist about human nature.  I think we sometimes don’t give him credit for that.  We think he wants to deny human nature in some fruitless quest for perfection.

But no, Jesus simply says, “Okay, you want to be great?  Fine.  It comes by being willing to serve.”  Jesus doesn’t despise the pursuit of greatness; he merely offers a new standard.

Jesus asks James and John, “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  This is not a reference to what we normally think of as baptism.  Baptism comes from the Greek word meaning “submerged.”  One can be submerged in debt, in homework, in busyness – even in busybodyness!  Jesus is asking his disciples, “Can you bear the thought of being submerged in the pain and suffering of this world?”  That is his standard for greatness.

In 1986, a sudden surge of power during a reactor systems test destroyed Unit 4 of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant, spewing massive amounts of deadly radioactive material into the environment. The death toll was unknown and rumored to be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand.  While many perished, three clean-up volunteers – Alexi Ananenko, Valeri Bezpoalov and Boris Baronov – willingly met their fate.  During the well-documented disaster, a pool of water used for emergencies in case of a break in the cooling pumps or steam pipes became flooded with a highly radioactive liquid that was in danger of blowing up. These three men suited up in scuba gear and swam into the radioactive waters of the flooded chamber, knowing full well they would die as a result. They opened up a gate valve, which allowed the contaminated water to drain out.  Days after reaching the surface all three men succumbed to radiation poisoning and were buried in lead coffins. If not for the bravery of the “Chernobyl Suicide Squad” a thermal explosion would have taken place resulting in unfathomable disaster.

Yeah, I think that’s what Jesus would call greatness.  Fortunately, most of us will not be called on to be submerged in the world’s pain and suffering quite so literally.

At the end of today’s passage, Jesus says he came to give his life as a ransom for many.  Ransom… an interesting choice of words.  To be ransomed is to be set free.  Set free to submerge ourselves as fully into life as Jesus did, to be open, and vulnerable, to be liberated from petty concerns and obsessions and freed to do those loving things which make God’s kingdom a reality.  What more greatness could a person wish for?

Yes, we are freed – ransomed to do all this.  We are not bribed, not bullied, and not threatened into acting.  We are ransomed.  We are free now to choose to drink deeply from the cup of life.  Who knows?  It may even be intoxicating.  Amen.

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