Redeeming Pastoral Ambition
Forest fires rage each year in California and Arizona in the summer consuming everything in their path. Saplings as new as the spring and mature trees as old as the Declaration of Independence are scorched to ash. Too often, our desire for greatness is like that—an all-consuming fire.
CORRUPTING TRUE GREATNESS
The Bible recounts story after story of men and women who sought their own greatness. We see this in godless rulers such as Pharaoh in the book of Exodus and Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Sometimes we see worldly glory seekers among the faithful, like when God rebuked Jeremiah’s trusted scribe, saying, “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5).
Yet the quest for glory still rages. Incalculable amounts of exertion, passion, money, and skill are employed in the pursuit. If we could know our own hearts perfectly, we’d have to admit that this is our story too. Some vision of greatness, whether consciously or not, tugs us along. It seems to be the subject of every commencement speech. “Go change the world,” ambitious graduates are told, which usually means, “Go become great in the eyes of the world.” Our current culture of side-hustles can stoke discontentment too; at times I’ve struggled to feel like my calling to pastor a local church is enough, as though if I did more then I’d be something more worthwhile. I’m probably not the only pastor who feels this way.
The disciples of Jesus had this same problem. In Mark 9, after beholding the glory of their Lord in his transfiguration, Mark tells us the disciples engaged in quite possibly the dumbest argument in the history of the world: a fight over which of the disciples was the greatest.
The context of the conversation makes their argument even more ridiculous. Consider what happened in Mark 9. Jesus revealed his glory on the mountain, showing he’s not weak and feeble but strong and glorious. Jesus then received the stamp of approval from God the Father and was highlighted as far more important than Moses and Elijah, two significant Old Testament prophets. Then Jesus victoriously battled a demon which had previously defeated the disciples. Then Jesus promised to rise from the dead, invoking imagery of himself as the exalted “Son of Man” figure mentioned in Daniel 7:9–14. The grossly understated takeaway from Mark 9 is that Jesus is a big deal.
When Jesus asks the disciples what they discussed, Mark says they kept silent because “on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” (9:34). They won’t answer because of shame. They’ve got hands in the cookie jar but reckon that if they slide the jar behind someone’s back, well, maybe Jesus won’t know.
But he knows. He sees the crumbs on the floor and the chocolate on their cheeks. Their petty and myopic argument about worldly greatness is sin, just like when we pastors size each other up at conferences and seminary students view classmates as competitors.
THE INVITATION TO TRUE GREATNESS
Zack Eswine notes in his book The Imperfect Pastor that ambition has a certain “arson” to it. That’s certainly true. But if we read Jesus’s words carefully, we’ll see Jesus doesn’t want to put the fire out. He wants to douse our desire for greatness with gasoline.
You might expect Jesus to issue a harsh rebuke. I mean, he is a prophet, and prophets do that sort of thing from time to time. Instead what they got—and what we get—is patience. He teaches; he instructs; he redefines; and he redirects. We would fire these disciples and hire others. But Jesus loves them. He tells them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Notice the exact phrasing: “servant of all,” not just servant of the greats, like servant of a famous pastor or a seminary president. His point is that the greatness of our service is enhanced not diminished by the lack of greatness of those we serve.
For us visual learners, Jesus goes on to illustrate his point. He called a child to himself, took the child in his arms, and said to the disciples, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (9:37). Jesus implies that greatness is receiving children because they are a specific example of the broader principle of servanthood. In receiving children, Jesus shows us that true greatness—by his definition—is serving, loving, and caring for the needs of people who cannot repay you.
THE REDEMPTION OF GREATNESS
Of course, the disciples don’t get it—not before the cross and resurrection, anyway. As Luke records, even during the last supper with Jesus, this same argument flared among them. “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. . . . A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:17, 24).
Christ’s lesson on true greatness didn’t stick. Ultimately we need more than a lesson or an invitation. We need redemption. Our definition of greatness is too corrupt. We all have in us what comedian Brian Regan calls the “me-monster.” I give away 20% of my income. I memorized the book of Ephesians. I have 2,000 Facebook friends. My church had a dozen baptisms last month. I bench press 350 lbs. and run marathons. I . . . I . . . I . . .
Jesus told his disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Indeed he was. And his service to sinners leads him to the cross where he dies for our sins, including those we commit pursuing greatness in the eyes of the world. And he redeems our corruption and shows us a better way. If you want to change the world, have the ultimate side-hustle, and be a modern prince of preachers, then by the grace of God be a servant of all.