It all began when the well-intentioned mother of the sons of Zebedee (James and John) who asked Jesus to allow her two sons to be seated at His right and left, “… in Your kingdom.” Whose mother doesn’t want to have the best for her children? The parent who sees the dedication to any cause (as long as it’s good!) wants to have her children be recognized for their efforts and dedication. Some modern parents have taken it to the far end of the spectrum that has them doing most of the work for their child… like a helicopter hovering over their child’s every moment. It all began when the well-intentioned mother of the sons of Zebedee (James and John) who asked Jesus to allow her two sons to be seated at His right and left, “… in Your kingdom.” Whose mother doesn’t want to have the best for her children? The parent who sees the dedication to any cause (as long as it’s good!) wants to have her children be recognized for their efforts and dedication. Some modern parents have taken it to the far end of the spectrum that has them doing most of the work for their child… like a helicopter hovering over their child’s every moment.
As Jesus responds to her request, He reminds them of His earlier conversations of His impending death; asking the two sons if they are able to “…drink of the same cup that I am to drink?” What is the “cup” Jesus mentioned? He further explained it with these words, [Jesus said], “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26b-28, ESV) As unfortunate and perhaps not “politically correct,” Jesus was settling a disagreement among the Twelve.
We must not overlook the significance of His statement, however. Service for His Kingdom takes sacrifice. Like the Apostle Paul, Jesus illustrates total dedication to His Kingdom by fully giving of Himself for the sake of the Kingdom. Even though Jesus later says to Pilate that He can give His life and take it up again, He would graciously and selflessly gave Himself to be a doulos slave for the Kingdom.
But, the mystery of His statements is clarified when He said, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Inherently, we don’t like the word, “slave.” But, don’t miss His point: When you are not compelled to love someone, you are then free to love unconditionally. Jesus had no compulsion to enter into His humiliation for our souls’ salvation. His love and mercy prompted Him (before Creation) to “enslave” Himself to the punishment and death our sins would foist upon Him. He was free of compulsion, so He loved us freely and gave of Himself unconditionally.
How, then, does that apply to His disciples? Sitting at the right hand or left hand of Christ in His eternal glory and majesty would have signaled greatness. Yet, sitting in the center seat is the ultimate greatness – reserved for Christ alone! Greatness, according to Jesus, is defined by the self-sacrifice for the good of others, without an expectation of anything in return, or compulsion to do so.
This month, we’re focusing on service. Service is a part of the stewardship that comes without compulsion for us, but comes freely as a response to the grace, mercy, and peace we have already received in an overflowing abundance from God. Stewardship is not just about giving money – despite what most congregants think! Our stewardship is also time and talents. All three are part of our uncompelled response to God. The point is this: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (II Cor. 9:6-7, ESV)
In my former congregation, we had several community projects, where anyone could work, based on their individual talents or experiences. One of those projects was construction work on Habitat for Community homes in our community. When we appeared for work at one particular home, we were joined with several dozen young people – both from our congregation and from the community. We showed the young people from the community about carpentry, siding, roofing, and so forth. I happened to be on a scaffolding with a young lady who struck up a conversation with me. As the morning went on, she blind-sided me with the question, “So, what are you in for?” I was confused and asked, “What do you mean?” Her reply was illustrative of what Jesus was getting across to His disciples. She answered, “Like… All of us are here like… doing community service time… like getting a reduced sentence instead of jail time. How about you?”
When I replied that we were from the Lutheran Church and we volunteered to do this work, she was taken back. “Why!?” Our conversation impacted the way I said a prayer later at lunch time. We thanked God for the opportunity to share our work together, asking for His blessing and safety in our efforts, and thanking God for the young people who could be with us in our cheerful giving in service.
When St. Paul wrote his second epistle to the Corinthians, he must have seen that incident on the scaffolding happening. When he wrote about a “cheerful giver,” Paul used an ancient Greek word that is hilaron. If you sound it out, hilaron it is where we get our English word, “hilarious.” Yes, the situation on the scaffolding was hilarious, but, more to the point, it illustrates Jesus’ message: Our service to our community, to our congregation, to our neighbors, or strangers is a cheerful, joyous opportunity to share the grace of God in Christ with those who need Him so deeply. What may appear to be hilarious volunteerism to some, is nothing more than cheerful stewardship of what God has already given us so freely.
Whatever service we provide – without compulsion – within the congregation or community reflects the love of God to those we serve. The mother of the two sons of Zebedee had one thing right: Although she wanted one of her sons on the left and the other on the right, she intuitively knew the center seat of greatness still belongs to Jesus. He is the image of complete submittal of servanthood, despite His rightful seat in of greatness and majesty in His eternal Kingdom. So, we keep on serving in the spirit of godly stewardship that the Gospel may continue to be proclaimed throughout the world, and even in your town. Hilarious? No, with a cheerful heart.
Rev. Dr. Roger Paavola
President, Mid-South District