This reading from Matthew 20:20-28 begins with the mother of Zebedee asking Jesus to place her sons at His right hand and His left hand in His Kingdom. He replies that this isn’t something He can assign: “To sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” The disciples then become upset at the two sons. But Jesus takes this opportunity to instruct his disciples.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
On the surface, this reading is about us not wanting to be the first among others. And it is about Jesus serving all of us on the Cross.
There are other places in the Bible where Jesus instructs us to put ourselves last instead of first – “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:16). But our society, our culture, puts a premium on being the best, the champion, the first in line, the valedictorian, “we’re number 1!”, “me first! me first!”, “be the first in your neighborhood to own…”, and on and on. We look down on the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the uneducated or less educated, the unskilled, the unmotivated, the depressed, the unloved, the weak, the sick, the slow, the sinner, and the “L”oser. That’s not what Jesus taught us, which is the message we should take away from this reading.
Just as Jesus “did not come to be served but to serve,” so should we. And what does it mean to serve instead of being served? To defer to the other person ahead of us than to ourselves. To respect others for whatever their circumstance. To not judge others but to love them. To do our best for others. To wait a little longer that another may be better served. To care for someone else who is sick or immobilized or unable to perform. To give aid to one who cannot do for him or herself. To give relief to one who usually does the serving. There are so many examples, but what it comes down to is thinking of the needs of others instead of thinking of ourselves.
Jesus has always made it clear that to be the greatest among us means to be the lowest among us, to be the servant. And He showed us how to live that kind of life throughout His ministry, even as the Son of God.