Me first! It’s something you hear on playgrounds every day. Children don’t have to be taught how to be selfish. It comes naturally. But not just for children, for grown-ups too. We live in a Me first! society full of Me first! people. Just look at how folks maneuver and speed up to get ahead on the highways and push past in the grocery lines. It even affects religion. Go into any Christian bookstore. The self-help section is the largest. Me first! The Bible says, “Husbands love your wives” but husbands leave their wives and children to “find themselves.” Me first! Women and men put their careers ahead of family. Me first! We live in a self-promoting, self-absorbed generation.
It was no different in Jesus’ day. James and John came to Jesus and asked him to do them a favor: “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory” (Mark 10:37). They wanted to be Jesus’ right-hand man. Only they didn’t know what they were asking for.
These sons of Zebedee were seeking the ultimate political appointment, only they got it all wrong. They weren’t asking a man who was about to set up an earthly, Messianic kingdom, as they supposed. They were asking someone hell-bent on getting himself killed. Jesus was a dead man walking. He was a criminal on his way to execution. And to be with him was to be guilty by association. Only they didn’t know that when they asked their question. Like a good Jew, Jesus answered their question with more questions: “Can ye drink the cup that I drink of? And be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Their immediate, unreflective reply was Yes, we can! They sounded like giddy Obama groupies just waiting for their man to take power. Jesus and his disciples were again talking past each other. Not only did James and John have no idea what they were asking of Jesus, they had not a clue as to what he was asking of them.
People often don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into. I’ve read several memoirs of young men who enlisted in the military in a time of war but didn’t realize what they were signing up for. Especially in World War I most joined for adventure, glory, and patriotism. What they got instead was long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror followed by disillusionment and cynicism. Few found what they set out after.
Jesus was great at turning things upside down, like when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables. He turned the Sabbath law on its head: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). He reversed economics. Instead of “get as much as you can,” he said, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). Jesus inverted the impulse of self-preservation: “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). He even promised to reverse life and death: “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). In Mark 10, he turns the tables on his two ambitious disciples, telling them, “whosoever of you wants to be the greatest, shall be servant of all” (44). The disciples didn’t get it. We don’t either.
The truly great Christians are not seeking positions of power but follow Jesus on the not-so-well-worn path of self-sacrifice that leads to suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “when Jesus calls a man he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).
Discipleship means following Jesus’ teaching and example, not the shallow Me first! preaching we hear from megachurch pulpits or on TV. Robert McElvaine, author of Grand Theft Jesus, calls it “ChristianityLite.” With lots of wry wit and sarcasm he characterizes the Me first! attitude prevalent today: “Turn the other cheek? Self-sacrifice? Help the poor? Nonviolence? That shit’s too hard!” (4-5).
If we’re going to get serious about following Jesus, we need to start by repenting of our Me first! approach to life. (Me first.) Self-centeredness is a sin, and sin must be paid for. Jesus “gave his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This transactional theology makes my liberal friends squirm. Christianity is not a civilized, sophisticated religion. It’s primitive. There’s blood and sacrifice. Jesus had to die as a “ransom” to pay the penalty for my sins, and yours.If we repent of our selfishness and pride, Jesus will show us a better way: “not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mark 10:45). It’s the way of service to others. Others first! instead of Me first! That’s what Gospel living is all about.