The Contentment of Serving (Matthew 20:20-28, Matthew 23:1-12)

An author named Ronald Kessler has written two highly entertaining books about information obtained through hundreds of interviews with former Secret Service agents assigned to U.S. Presidents from Nixon through Obama, as well as unsuccessful presidential candidates they served.

The titles are: In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect and The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.

One book review says, “With fly-on-the-wall perspective, he captures the drama and tension that characterize agents’ lives and reveals what they have seen, providing startling, previously untold stories about the presidents … as well as about their families, Cabinet officers, and White House aides.”

Another summary review writes, “As in a play, presidents, vice presidents, and presidential candidates perform on stage for the public and the media. What the nation’s leaders are really like and what goes on behind the scenes remains hidden. Secret Service agents have a front row seat on their private lives and those of their wives and children.”

It is easy to imagine that this is a work with stories all over the spectrum, from good to bad. Without doubt, at this level of life, one really does lose a tremendous amount of privacy and freedom.

Drawing the protective detail for one particular wife of a former President (whom I’ll not reveal) was seen among the agents as being given a form of punishment as the worst assignment in the Secret Service, due to her endlessly nasty and condescending treatment of all around her. On the other hand, one other first family treated the agents as if they were family, demonstrating care and interest in their personal lives.

There is something very corrupting about achieving high levels of power and authority in the eyes of this world. It is very difficult in our current context to listen to even a few minutes of the news without grave concern about high level corruption and dysfunction that may imperil our country.

In my own handful of years involved in political activism, I would summarize them as a time of meeting some of the very best and the very worst people – on the national, state and local levels.

  • The worst were those who were always posturing for position or for the next election cycle. They never, ever dropped out of campaigning mode. Governing was the busy work that had to be done to just get on to the next public appearance that fed their internal gratification monster.
  • The best were those who genuinely saw positions of prominence as a way to serve others. They believed they could do it well and flesh out a values system for the good of all, but if it did not work out for them to have a certain position, they were fine with serving and pursuing other life endeavors.

I’m afraid that the former too often outnumber the latter in our public systems, and maybe even in the world of faith and religion. This makes sense; it is the natural way of the world and of the fallen nature of man. In a word, we might say that seeking personal aggrandizement and positions of honor is intuitive; whereas seeking to be lowly and a servant of others is COUNTERINTUITIVE.

Here is a big idea to guide us today: We would think that the ultimate life of ease would involve being constantly served by others, when in fact, true contentment comes from serving others.

What is it that makes a person truly happy at a soul level, down at the core of one’s being?

  • We might picture being on a yacht or living in the Caribbean at one of those resort types of places with docks and canopies, where everyone is extraordinarily beautiful and always carrying a drink of some sort, even when soaking in a heart-shaped tub.
  • We might think it is having a penthouse office suite with three layers of secretaries and executive staff for anyone to get through to even meet with us. Everyone else does the work and just brings you multiple good proposals to choose between to run the corporation or the government.

But really? Does that satisfy? After a while along the water, you’d get bored with relaxing and just want to go do something or see something different … even shop at Walmart!  And with the latter situation, there is no way to escape the worry that perhaps something is going wrong out of sight that will cause the whole empire to collapse, perhaps by someone gunning for you!

Maybe you’ve had experiences where you look back in life and remember the core-level satisfaction that surprisingly came to you when you did something very unusual – like that time you took off a week to do a missions project with a relief agency.

Maybe you realize that though you’re not dissatisfied at work, you actually have greater anticipation for the upcoming Saturday where you’re getting together with some others to do a food distribution project in a public housing development.

Maybe you’re even a bit surprised at yourself at the joy you find in writing a check each month to send toward the support of a youth outreach ministry, or to the sending agency of a missionary working in a third-world country.  (Or to serving in the church!)

Yes, it’s all counterintuitive, but it’s also being like Christ to serve others rather than to be served and to be in authority. And that is the teaching of Jesus that we look at today, alternating between tow passages in Matthew’s gospel: 20 and 23.

  1. It is the natural desire of the flesh to seek prominence and self-centered aggrandizement and fulfillment.

Indeed, it is the natural tendency of our self-preservationist, self-centered flesh to be very oriented toward seeing our own success. And this is nothing new, it was happening regularly within the inner circle of Christ’s followers.

Matthew 20:20 –  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.”

These sons, these two disciples, are James and John, known from their calling to follow Jesus as the “sons of Zebedee.”  So here is the wife of Zebedee coming to Christ with a special request. Women were especially listened to in this sort of context within that culture.

Isn’t this just like a mom thing to do?!  I could certainly picture my mother doing something like this, as she did it all the time when I was growing up and getting more involved in music. I thought I was being “discovered” by these community choral group directors, only to find out eventually that mom put them up to asking me to get involved.

But a “momma bear incident” is not actually what is happening. We know from the other gospels that James and John were themselves behind this. Earlier, Christ had said the 12 would have “thrones” in the kingdom, so they wanted the two closest to Christ – those of greatest honor, like at a dinner table.

Matthew 20:22 “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.”

Have you ever had someone ask you a question about something you know in detail, and you realize they don’t understand enough about it to intelligently consider what they’re pondering?  That is what is happening here.

Following Christ involves the issue of the cross, the great offense to the world. These disciples would suffer, as Jesus well knew. James would be the first to be martyred early in the church era, occasioning the scattering of Christ’s disciples out of Jerusalem. John would live the longest, though he too would suffer by being exiled later in life.

But the entire issue of thrones in the Kingdom was not for Christ to determine; that was for the Father to grant. There will be a Kingdom; there will be rewards for those who are faithful servants, that is certain.

And here now is proof that James and John were behind this questioning by their momma …

Matthew 20:24 – When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

The other 10 were not angry at the mom! They knew what was going on. And they were ticked off!  The word for indignant is a very, very strong Greek term. Jesus was said to be indignant when children were being prevented from coming to him. The religious leaders were indignant when they saw how popular Jesus was in the Temple.

So the disciples here were surely up in the faces of James and John. The disciples are seen on quite a few occasions having a sort of “sibling rivalry,” even at the last supper.

Yes, it is natural in the sinful world to want prominence. Recall where sin came from originally and about the thinking of Satan. He said that he wanted to be like God – top prominence!  He deceived Adam and Eve into believing that God was holding out something on them.  At the temptations of Christ, he offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only he would worship him.  Satan is called the prince and power of the air, the ruler of this world. For him, it is all about power and prominence and self, and so it is for us when we yield to the natural desires of the flesh.

  1. This world is full of examples of people who seek and gain prominence and who are “pedestalized” for their “achievements.”

Matthew 20:25 – 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.

Yes, this is nothing new; it is not something that is merely the outworking of our hedonistic, modern culture. It has always been this way for vast numbers of people in secular leadership. Over the years, some have done this with military powers and dictatorships. Others have done it in more subtle ways of wielding power and influence.

The phrase lord it over them is a single Greek word – actually a compound with 15 letters, a very strong word. And then comes also another single word with 16 letters that the NIV translates exercise authority over them. It could be translated with our modern phrase of “throw their weight around.”

So it is almost universal that this is how those in power operate. Apart from God, this is the natural course. And it is thus so very, very rare to find someone in high position who operates out of a base of authority other than power … like a base of desiring to serve.

Over to Matthew 23, Jesus will illustrate with some common examples of self-seeking prominence within the Jewish context …

Matthew 23:1-4 … Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

This is prominence achieved through hypocritical speech.

The Pharisees were famous for their ability to say one thing, but do little follow-up. They taught often of the failures of others, but were in reality the best models of worthlessness.

The world is now, as it has always been, filled with great talkers – those who can give a great speech to large crowds, but who do not themselves privately do what they say.

  • Perhaps “exhibit A” is the tele-evangelist – the one who gets his thousands of followers to send in their “seed” for a great harvest in their lives, while he himself is enriched by the seeds while living an extravagant lifestyle.
  • We’ve written much about the political world today, but they’ve earned it. While taxing one-half of the masses and “preaching” of sacrificially supporting the other one-half, they themselves never take cuts to their compensation. It is shocking to see how so many of them have been entrenched in power for so long and have become fantastically wealthy through their places of influence.

Matthew 23:5-7 …“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

This is prominence achieved through visual appearance.

Phylacteries – these are boxes with Scriptures in them – a physical and visible outworking of that Deuteronomy 6 passage about binding God’s words to oneself. This was not a literal command, though not specifically a wrong thing; and like all else, the Pharisees took it to an entirely new level.

Tassels on their garments long … Again, not something wrong, but something done in more ornate fashion by the Pharisees.

Places of honor – they were always cognizant of being seen with important people in important public places.  They would be seen at any big public event. And they would have had impressive “Linked-In” accounts!  Some people find great meaning in thinking about who it is that they know and how they work to develop important relationships.

And the rabbis really liked their titles…

Matthew 23:8-10 – “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.

This is prominence achieved through grandiose titles.

Rabbi – this was an especially prominent title that set the holder up in the nation of Israel as at the very top. But, they should rather think about the one Teacher.

Father – not a title used of the religious leaders, but is probably a word that emphasized their propensity toward identification with the lineage of teachers of the Law dating back to Moses.

Instructor – similar to the first word, it is saying that “yes” there is authority, but it is not in the human person but in the word of the Messiah, which is the word of God.

Some people like to throw around titles. I have known religious world people who like to use the word “Doctor” in their name, only to find out it was an honorary degree. I’ve always been creeped out by titles, especially “reverend” … so don’t do that to me!  “Pastor” is only a little bit better, and I put up with it because it speaks of a spiritual gift. Just call me “Randy” or “Dude.”

There is a human tendency to reference the connections one has with well-known people of authority, gaining for yourself some points by dropping their names.

So there are plenteous examples of the intuitive way to achieve prominence. We’ve seen it through power (as with the Gentile world leaders), and through speech, dress and titles (as seen in the Jewish world). And all of these things remain common today with those who get to the pedestals of recognition in this world.

But there is a better way, a counterintuitive way …

  1. True greatness is to follow the model of Christ by intentionally being a servant to others, especially those less-advantaged.

Matthew 23:11 – The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

That just seems crazy, doesn’t it?  It won’t work. You won’t get to the top this way, out of sight! You’ve gotta fight to get there. But as one of my all-time favorite phrases says, “Some people climb the ladder of success, only to get to the top and find out it was leaning against the wrong building.”

Living like Christ really is counterintuitive. Looking back again in Matthew 20, this concept and lesson was fleshed out more specifically in Christ’s words in that passage …

Matthew 20:25 – 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.”

The word “servant” is diakonos, from which we get “deacon,” but also the word “minister.” So it is very odd that this word has come over time to represent power and honor.  Think of the British political system where one of great authority is called “The Minister of ____ .”  And it can be that way in church circles with the use of the term.

To be sure that the teaching concept was not lost, Jesus goes beyond “servant” to the word “slave.”  It is not just that those who want to be great should serve others, perhaps like a low-level, hired worker, they were to think of themselves as a “slave.”  This was a vice in the ancient world, and it shows the extent to which Christ’s teachings were revolutionary, counterintuitive even!

And the most upside-down thing – the ultimate illustration – is the sacrifice of Christ as a ransom to pay the redemption price. This would conjure up immediately the sacrificial system – the innocent lamb having its throat slit and its blood applied to the altar as a covering for sin.

This is a teaching argument from the greater to the lesser. If the ultimate Teacher/Messiah would model service by giving his life as a redeeming sacrifice for guilty sinners who put him on the cross, how much more appropriate it is for those recipient followers to be quick to be servants of all other people. Let that sink in. Let that thought be resident in you when you think that helping someone, or serving in some situation, is beneath you, or to benefit someone who is not deserving of the kindness. Wow.

So, can we really believe that this will work in the modern world? We might get stepped on when doing this. Yep! But it’s all good, if that happens.

Hey, if you achieve at a high level, we’ve already talked about how fleeting and transitory and unsatisfying it turns out to be. And beyond that, when living a lifestyle of service, the rewards to be gained are more likely to be in the next world – which is better yet.

Truly, those folks who are high-powered achievers through worldly means may be honored to some degree. But those who were known to be servants, they are the ones most warmly remembered. And beyond that, they are the ones who will be most rewarded in the place where it really counts. We can serve others, trusting God with the results, believing this is the counterintuitive route to true contentment.

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