Scripture: Luke 22:24-27
During my 5th year of college I worked as a line cook at the Chi-Chi’s restaurant that used to be on State St. down from the Ann Arbor Airport. I wasn’t there long enough to become highly skilled at the job, but it was long enough that my skill level eventually advanced enough for them to schedule me in the #1 position from time to time. In that setting, that was the person who cooked the main meals; the #2 cook prepared the salads and side dishes. Generally, one started out in the #2 position and worked their way up to the #1 position.
One of the reasons I was able to work my way into that #1 position was because of the encouragement I often received from one of the top cooks at that time. He and I were often scheduled to work together, he in the #1 position and me in the #2 position. I distinctly remember him saying to me on numerous occasions, “Drew, you’re doing a great job!” I remember how good it felt hearing him tell me that. His kind words were an invaluable source of my own sense of accomplishment. In many ways, I credit him with helping me to move beyond the self-doubt I felt, especially early on, when I often wondered if I’d ever be able to do my job well.
Skip ahead six or eight months. Now I’m in the #1 position working with a relatively new cook who’s learning the #2 position. Knowing his own experience of self-doubt, wondering if he’ll ever be able to do it well, I desperately wanted to give him the same encouragement I was given. But for some reason I couldn’t do it. I wanted to – I wanted to say, “You’re really doing a great job!” – but for some reason I was unable to bring myself to say the words. And I kicked myself every time this happened because it doesn’t make any sense to me. Every single time this happened I asked myself, “How come I can’t pass along the encouragement I received, knowing the difference it’ll make in his experience?” But the words remained in my head, unspoken. The encouragement I could have provided never found its way from my mouth to his ears—all because I couldn’t bring myself to compliment him for doing his job well.
That inability to compliment him still haunts me to this day. I think I now know why. I’m pretty sure it was because of my own emotional insecurities. To tell him he was doing well was too threatening to my own sense of self. My old ‘dinosaur brain’ would have heard my compliment of someone else as a direct criticism of me. It’s stupid, I know, but it happens all the time. If I said, “You’re doing great,” my insecure self would have interpreted that as, “I’m no good.” And my ego was simply too delicate at that point in time. I guess I needed to be #1. I needed to be over him, above him somehow…at least in my own mind.
Well, it goes without saying that I didn’t want to stay that way the rest of my life. And so I had some growing up to do. I had to let God grab hold of my heart and heal me of those emotional insecurities. And while I’m no longer in that same place I was back then, I, like all of us here, am still a work in progress.
It seems to me that we come into this world with a fragile ego. It’s our human condition. Some children are fortunate enough to grow up in homes with emotionally healthy parents. By and large, the egos of these children are likely to be strengthened in a healthy way. Unfortunately, many others are raised by parents who are not emotionally healthy, who unknowingly damage the already fragile egos of their children. As those kids become adults, usually one of two things will happen. Either they’ll become passive and let everyone walk all over them, or they’ll go the opposite direction and overcompensate become the one to do the walking all over others.
Here’s the good news: Jesus Christ was set free from tomb in order to set us free from our own bondages. Even if you were raised in a highly dysfunctional home, the good news is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead has the power to free you from the shackles you acquired from that home life growing up. Galatians 5:1 is a powerful statement, and it would do all of us good to memorize it and repeat it out loud every day: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (NIV).
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)
To put it another way, Jesus Christ freed us from the bondage of sin and death in order that we may to be truly free. The resurrected life we have in Jesus isn’t just for the sake of our eternal life – although that’s certainly a great thing to have. But it’s also for the sake of our current life. A huge part of God’s purpose in resurrecting his Son is so that we might have that same resurrected life in the here-and-now. This means that today we’re no longer enslaved by the sins perpetrated against us by others. In Jesus Christ you and I are truly free — free to experience and choose the life God intended for us. And where that may have been thwarted for a while by the actions of another, Jesus’ resurrection broke those chains.
One of the chains he broke was the one that keeps us in a state of emotional fragility, where we find our worth based on what others say or think about us. Or by how many “likes” we get on our social media posts. Or by getting recognition for the things we’ve done. Or by being better than someone else, or smarter, or faster. And so on. The fact is, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Listen again to how this morning’s Gospel reading begins: An argument broke out among the disciples over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest (Luke 22:24). I’ve always heard this as the opening statement of a short story dealing with a lack of humility. In fact, the Common English Bible editors include as the subtitle of this short section, “The disciples debate greatness.” But I got to wondering about what the issue was behind the debate the in the first place. Why were they even having that debate? More to the point, why was it so important to determine who among them was the greatest?
And then something dawned on me. Maybe this isn’t a story about a lack of humility as much as it’s a story about the delicate sense of self-worth of a bunch of guys who follow Jesus. From what we know about these men, it’s safe to say that most of them were not learned. They were blue-collar workers. Salt of the earth. They knew their station in society, and probably didn’t fancy themselves to be intelligent or worldly men. So as things go, I’m guessing they were probably relatively humble people. So maybe the issue was something different.
Maybe these were men who in their brokenness saw themselves as people of no importance. And yet there was still a part of them that longed to be important. And maybe that was just it – Jesus was trying to help them see that importance isn’t measured by who we are or by how others perceive us. Being important in the eyes of self of others may make one great by the worlds standards. But Jesus seems to be suggesting that it’s really otherwise.
So here’s how Jesus responds to their argument. He says, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you.” (v. 25)
OK, I get the part of kings ruling over their subjects, but why did he mention that some authority figures are called “friends of the people”? Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts a different spin on it. Here’s how he paraphrases it: “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to gives themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you.” Ah, maybe it’s the fancy title issue that Jesus is warning them about.
The fact is, we like titles, don’t we? In our view, a title gives a person importance. Titles make us stand out (or stand above?) the common folk. Consider these “fancy titles:” Dr., President, PhD., Officer, Professor, Coach, Principal, Mayor, and even Reverend. Something each of these have in common is that people with these titles generally have some level of authority over others. In their circles, they have influence and power. By the world’s standards, power and position are an important marker of greatness. People with titles are somebodies. For example, I went to seminary with a woman who desperately wanted to be a pastor because she saw it as a way of being somebody important (a very bad reason to become a pastor!)
But Jesus says that titles and power and position are no indicator of greatness. In essence he says, This is not how you should measure greatness. True greatness is being able to be the servant to those who are under you. Jesus said, “The greatest among you must become like a person of lower status.” He acknowledges that there are some among his group of followers who are greater than others by societal standards. And he says that the truly great person is the one who recognizes their wordly greatness, but nevertheless is able to be the servant. They’re not emotionally threatened by lifting up those who normally serve them. That’s the sign of true greatness.
What may have gotten in their way, however, was a fragile self of self-worth. They wanted a title. They wanted to be liked. They wanted to be somebody that others would look up to.
And very little has changed in 2000 years. Because what tripped them up then still trips us up today. We want a title. We want to be liked. We want to be someone who others will look up to. We want to be admired.
Those may be the things we want, but what we need is healing. A healing of the soul. I believe healing comes when we seek to please no one but Jesus himself. And when we seek to be like him. Yes, many of us have fancy titles in this world, but let’s remember that from the perspective of eternity, those titles get us nowhere. Our positions of influence have no bearing on our eternal well-being. The only title that really matters is the one that Jesus said we should strive after in Matthew 5:25. When we’re facing our Maker on the Last Day, the only thing we should want to hear him say is, “Well done, good and faithful . . . servant.” Servant is the title God calls us to seek after.
You and I have been set free to serve. Specifically, to serve those who this world should serve us. It could even be said that we were created and put here to serve. Jesus said, “The greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant.” (Luke 22:26) For some of us, however, this will only come after we’ve allowed God to heal our souls of a brokenness that keeps us in the bondage of thinking that our self-worth comes from position, power, and title. Let’s pray.