BASIN THEOLOGY Matthew 20:17-28 Theme of the Month Mentorship: Growing, Maturing & serving
Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Sharp
Lead Pastor, English Congregation Vancouver Chinese Baptist Church, Vancouver, British Columbia
Sunday Sermon for 10 January 2010
Scripture Passage Matthew 20:17-28
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!” 17
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 20
“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.” 21
“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. 22
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.” 23
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.” 24
I don’t know if the papers here in Canada carry a little cartoon called Ziggy. Ziggy is a small, bald, pants-less, barefoot, almost featureless character (save for his large nose) who seems to have no job, hobbies, or romantic partner, just a menagerie of pets: Fuzz, a small white dog; Sid, a cat afraid of mice; Josh, a discouraging parrot; Goldie, a fish; and Wack, a duck. Ziggy is one of those for whom life never seems to work out right.As someone has described him as: he is perpetually one step behind, one nickel short, one lane away from the fast lane. But people love him, because everyone feels like Ziggy every now and then. For instance in one cartoon, Ziggy sits in his chair and reflects on the week that has just ended. “Sheesh! What a week!!” he says. “Monday morning, my horoscope in the newspaper told me to go back to bed! Tuesday, opportunity knocked while I was out back taking out the garbage. On Wednesday, my new bedroom set was diagnosed with Dutch-elm disease! Thursday, my phone rang three times with obscene bird calls for my parrot! And Friday! I had to pay the library an overdue fine for a book called, How to Improve Your Memory! And then on Saturday, something really exciting happened!! The doorbell rang and right there on my front porch was Ed McMahon from Publisher’s Clearing House with a giant million dollar check. Naturally, he was asking for directions to my neighbor’s house!” You’ve known people like Ziggy, haven’t you? Good people, nice people, people you like to have as best friends, next door neighbors, buddies on the job. They’re good hearted folk but they never quite seem to be able to get their lives together. They are always on the outside looking in— watching life go by but never having any aspiration or ambition to get out there and lead the parade. Now it may seem a long way from Ziggy to today’s text, but in a way they are connected by this idea of ambition, goals, aspirations, purpose. And the question I want to ask today, on the second Sunday of the year as we look at this passage is:“Is it wrong to be ambitious?” Having a goal, a dream, something we want to aspire to, a drive is sometimes called having ambition, being ambitious. And from today’s scripture passage, the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples/followers James and John certainly didn’t think it was wrong to have goals and to be ambitious. She wanted her boys to sit on Jesus’ right hand and his left when he came into his kingdom. Some have said that she fit the stereotypical good Jewish mother wanting her sons to be make it good—to be doctors or lawyers or scientists or world class musicians, writers and so on, fulfilling the dreams their parents have for them. I heard about one young Jewish fellow who came to his mother and told her he wanted to be a rabbi. “What kind of job is that,” she asked, “for a good Jewish boy?” Of course, we could also talk about the pressure that Asian parents place on their children, but that is another sermon. The mother of James and John had great dreams for her sons. Is there anything wrong with that? Maybe, maybe not. It is important to have dreams and goals and ambitions. The danger comes from having the wrong ambitions or misdirected ambition and we’ll see some of that in this story. BASINTHEOLOGY 2
But first, let’s start by admitting that most people at some time in their lives have dreams of greatness, of making a difference in the world. Don’t we? I hope we do; particularly when we are young. Mediocrity is a pretty low bar and ultimately unsatisfying. It would be sad to think that any young person would grow up with so little self-esteem that he or she never dreamed of doing anything significant in life. In many ways this is a normal desire. One, I would argue, God has for us. But ambition can go wrong. In the February 1995 issue of Campus Life magazine, Wil B. Strange tells about a young man with more than his share of ambition. In fact, you may have seen the story. In his article, Strange calls him the Conehead sumo wrestler. According to the Associate Press story Strange is quoting, the guy’s name is Koji Harada, a Japanese teenager who literally went to great lengths to fulfill his greatest ambition in life: He wanted to be a sumo wrestler. But Koji had a problem. He was only 5 feet 2 inches tall. And according to the Japan Sumo Association, you have to be 5’8” to wrestle. No problem, said Koji. He marched into a plastic surgeon’s office and made his simple request: “Doc, make me taller. Six inches taller.” And the doctor obliged by injecting silicone implants into Koji’s scalp, adding half a foot (a little over 15 cms) to the top of his head. The result? Conehead Koji now measures up, and he’s wrestling with the big boys. Koji’s not the first aspiring sumo wrestler to try something like this according to the report. Others before him have tried to meet the height requirement by using stretching machines. Some even resorted to whacking themselves on the head with a club, resulting in huge lumps—just for sake of an extra centimeter or two. But the Sumo Association had seen enough. Shortly after Koji, the Sumo Association decided to ban silicone implants for “health reasons.” One expert commented: “The association was afraid that other people would get other kinds of weird ideas for ways to make themselves taller.” Interesting. But not too unusual, I guess. People have dreams. Some people will go to great lengths to see those dreams realized, even if their dreams and ambitions are misdirected or dangerous. It is not unusual for people to be ambitious. And as I said, you could make a good case that God placed a dose of ambition into our souls so that we would seek to do great things with our life. But like all the good gifts that God gives to us, they can be misused or distorted or corrupted. But another thing we can say about ambition is that it is usually the case that nothing gets done in this world without some ambitious person behind it. Let’s face it, Ziggy’s always going to be a nice fellow, and we are glad for the Ziggys of this world, but Ziggy will never make a great and lasting contribution to the world. The people who have made a difference in the world are usually people who have a vision, a burning desire, an ambition. In a sense, Mother Teresa was ambitious. She walked into the slums of Calcutta with the aim of transforming a small section of the world by bringing the love and compassion of Christ to those BASINTHEOLOGY 3
whom society had written off and discarded. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham, all were ambitious, driven by a goal, a desire, a passion. Nobody accomplishes very much in this world or contributes very much to the world without a dose of ambition, a dream, a goal. In fact, given enough ambition, even the least likely of people can make a difference in the world. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious or zealous or driven by a goal a passion a dream. We might wonder if Michelangelo would have made such a contribution as he did to the art world if he had not prayed: “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish”? Probably not. Michelangelo was ambitious. He was driven. He was motivated. He was captured by a vision. Is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it wrong to have dreams, to be driven by a vision or a goal? Of course not. God placed ambition in our bones to help us achieve something with our lives. Nothing great is ever accomplished without somebody ambitious behind it. But, we need to add this: There is such a thing as Selfish Ambition and Selfish Ambition can be dangerous. We can all think of examples. Adolph Hitler was ambitious! Joseph Stalin was ambitious! Al Capone was ambitious! Donald Trump is ambitious! Many of the wall street bankers and the speculators and average people that got us into this current financial crisis were ambitious. Theirs was a selfish ambition driven without any clear moral framework; and that kind of ambition is dangerous and destructive. It is not about helping others, but helping themselves. We often see the results of this kind of ambition in the areas of politics and business and finance.. Although he has turned his life around and now is a bold witness for Christ, few will forget the quote attributed to Charles Colson when he was the political advisor for Richard Nixon: “I would step on my mother in order to see the president reelected.” And Colson meant it. More than one politician (Liberal, Conservative, and NDP) has been heard to say something like: “No matter how noble your goals, you can do nothing if you don’t get elected. I plan to do anything, and I do mean anything, to be elected.” Now there are many honest and dedicated people serving in political life but we also see many others who literally would do anything to be elected or reelected. Ambition without a clear moral framework is dangerous; ambition without a firm moral compass and direction is dangerous; ambition without a goal or purpose that transcends my own selfishness is dangerous. The danger is there for every ambitious person. What price success? What price security? At the expense of your values? At the expense of your family? At the expense of your self-respect? At the expense of your soul? I like something that the African American singer Pearl Bailey once said: “Children, you must remember something. A [person] without ambition is dead. A [person] with ambition but no love is dead. A [person] with ambition and love and gratitude for the blessings they experience here on earth is ever so alive. And having been alive, it won’t be so hard in the end to lie down and rest.”
Pearl Bailey was right. We need to marry/connect ambition, love, gratitude and ethical conduct. And this brings us to Jesus’ word to us for today: It’s alright to be ambitious if you’re ambitious for the right things. I don’t think Jesus scolded his disciples for being ambitious. He knew that the same drive and determination that can produce success in the world also produces gain for the Kingdom. Jesus often used words like strive, desire, work for, make it your aim and goal to enter the Kingdom, to love, to care. The question is how is our ambition directed? Is it directed toward gaining more things? More things will never satisfy the real hunger in our lives. Is it directed toward having the envy and admiration of our colleagues or those around us? Envy is never as satisfying as having the respect of our colleagues. How is your ambition directed? The most satisfying ambition in life, Jesus tells us, is to have holy ambition—to have an ambition, a goal, a passion, a desire, a purpose that honors God because it is consistent with God’s will for you and for the world. A holy ambition is a real determination to live the way God wants us to live. And over and over again, Jesus says that at the heart of a Holy Ambition is living a life of service and sacrifice. Bruce Thielemann, a Presbyterian pastor, told of a conversation he had once with an active member in his church. “You preachers talk a lot about giving,” said the member, “but when you get right down to it, it all comes down to basin theology.” Thielemann asked: “Basin theology? What’s that?” The member replied: “Remember what Pilate did when he had the chance to acquit Jesus, to set him free? He called for a basin and washed his hands of the whole thing. But Jesus, the night before his death, called for a basin and proceeded to humbly wash the feet of the disciples. It all comes down to basin theology. Which one will you use?” Jewish history and the New Testament make it clear that Pilate, the governor of Judea who presided at Jesus’ trial and execution, was an ambitious man. He was not willing to sacrifice his possessions and his position when he was confronted with the opportunity to choose between what was right and what was expedient. He called for the basin to wash his hands. Jesus was also an ambitious man. His ambition was the grandest ambition of all—to live his life according to the will of God and to usher in the rule of God in every heart. He also called for a basin so that he might wash his disciples’ feet. While there are many difference between Pilate and Jesus, one of the major differences is that we see in Jesus that performance is more important than position. Also in today’s story, the two brothers were ambitious for position, privilege, power. They came to Jesus , not saying, “Lord, we want to do something great for your kingdom,” but rather, “Lord, give us a place of position in your kingdom.” They weren’t thinking about what they could do, but about what they could have. Jesus reminds us that if you want to do something great with your life, forget about your position or your privilege, focus on your performance. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to accomplish something great for the kingdom of God, there’s nothing selfish about that. So, here at the beginning of the year we could use a healthy dose of ambition—an ambition like Jesus’ ambition—an ambition for the Kingdom of God—an ambition to set the world right—an BASINTHEOLOGY 5
ambition for peace and justice for all God’s children. It’s not bad to be ambitious—as long as we are ambitious for the right things. Ernest Campbell once observed: “There are two great moments in every human being’s life—the moment when one is born and the moment when one begins to discover why he or she was born.” This defines our ambition. The ambition Jesus calls for is one that is prepared to pay the price; that is willing to sacrifice. This discussion with the two brothers and their mother comes right after Jesus has talked about his upcoming death (vv. 18-19). Jesus’ ambition, his commitment to his purpose cost him something. Jesus is saying to the brothers, if you want to do something great for the Kingdom of God, there’s a price you will have to pay. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, who was killed by the Nazis for his faithfulness to the vision of the Kingdom of God often spoke of Costly Grace. It costs something to follow Jesus. Cheap grace won’t cut it. Wanting forgiveness and salvation without obedience and sacrifice and discipleship is cheap grace and cheap grace doesn’t save. It costs something to live in and for the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the cost is that others will resent you for trying. They will call you a fanatic or an idealist or simply unrealistic. Sometimes the cost is that it takes you in a different direction from the desires and plans of your friends and even family. Sometimes the cost is the ultimate cost of your life. But Jesus says to us, and the whole New Testament echoes it as well—if you want your life to be defined by holy ambition, if you want to make an impact on this world for God, you will have to pay a price for it. It won’t be easy, but do expect that it will be worth it. Writing in Authentic Christianity, John Stott, once said: “Greatness in the Kingdom of God is measured in terms of obedience”; and I think we could add “service.” Holy/divine ambition begins and ends with serving others. Listen to Jesus’ words (vv. 26-28): “… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—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 difference between holy ambition and selfish ambition comes down to the question of who is being served. Do you see your job, your life, your ministry in terms of how it benefits others? Or do you see your job, life and ministry in terms of how it benefits you? Jesus says that if you want to know greatness, then make serving others the primary focus of your life. Some of you know the name of the psychiatrist, Victor Frankl. Victor Frankl was imprisoned in one of Hitler's death camps. In the midst of the deplorable living conditions the Jewish prisoners were forced to endure, Frankl offered what medical aid he could with what limited resources he had. Over time, he made a discovery that he later wrote about in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. He said those people who kept their strength and sanity the longest were those who tried to help other prisoners and share what little they had. Their physical and mental condition seemed to be strengthened by their willingness to focus on something other than themselves. Frankl concluded that if someone responds to life by trying to make life better for others, that effort reinforces the person's mental and physical stamina. In other words, ministry energizes you. Frankl learned something about man's search for meaning: we were made to serve others; and in serving others we find our strength.
And how much truer this is for those who know the living God and have come to know the purpose of their life in and through Christ. The key to success in every area of life is found in serving others. It’s not an attitude that says: “You’re here for me.” It’s an attitude that says, “I’m here for you.” That’s how we achieve greatness: serving others. Now what about us? What about you? Are you an ambitious person? Ambitious for what? This is both our danger and our opportunity. Or maybe the more important question is to ask is: Which basin? Which basin describes your ambition and goal and purpose in life. Is it like Pilate’s—the one of life as usual, playing it safe, living primarily for yourself and yours or is it the basin of service and sacrifice, of purpose and peace, of joy and satisfaction. Which basin? The choice is yours.
Reflection Questions 1. As you read today’s Scripture passage, what are your impressions, thoughts, questions? 2. What do you think about ambition? Do you agree that ambition is not necessarily a bad thing? When does it become a bad thing? 3. Are you an ambitious person? If so, ambitious for what? How is your ambition directed? Towards what? 4. How would you define/describe “Holy Ambition”? 5. Would you agree that nothing great is accomplished without somebody ambitious behind it? If yes, can you give some examples? 6. Ernest Campbell once observed: “There are two great moments in every human being’s life—the moment when one is born and the moment when one begins to discover why he or she was born.” Have you had that second great moment? 7. What questions, thoughts, ideas do you have about this sermon?