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The Call to Downward Mobility (Mk. 10:35-45)

by Kenneth L. Carder

Kenneth L. Carder is a bishop in the United Methodist church in Nashville, TN. This article appeared in the Christian Century, Oct. 8, 1997, p. 869, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Everybody wants to be somebody. Since the dawn of history, human beings have been trying to move up the scale of importance. The clincher used by the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve was "when you eat of [the tree of good and evil], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). Henri Nouwen says that ever since then, we have been tempted to replace love with power. "The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led." This is a theme running through the Bible, through human history and through our own psyche.

We should not be surprised nor excessively judgmental with James and John. Although their brashness may not be our style, the motive underlying their request is not strange: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." Shared glory; honored positions, closeness to powerful people -- these are popular means of being somebody. If we can’t be the glory or the honored guest or the one with the power, then being close by is the next best thing. Some of the glory will make us shine. Some of the honor may spill over onto us.

Religion is fertile soil in which the seeds of ambition subtly grow. Being close to God has deadly dangers. Some of history’s most dastardly deeds have been done by those who claimed to be sitting on God’s right or left hand. It is easy for those of us who deal daily with holy things to be presumptuous. James and John apparently felt their closeness to Jesus gave them special entree. They prefaced their request for prominence with "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.

It is easy to assume that relationship with God translates into entitlement. Career advancement, upward mobility, assignments or calls to bigger churches with larger salaries and more prominent leadership positions are popular expectations of clergy. Their competition for prestigious pulpits and powerful positions threatens their witness. Their drive for the honored and well-compensated positions contributes to the weakening of congregations located in mission fields. Small, impoverished congregations become temporary stepping stones in the pursuit of prominent places.

Insights from the social sciences fill contemporary books on effective leadership. But although the social sciences provide helpful tools for understanding the dynamics of leadership, they must not be foundational for leadership in the church. Without a firm theological foundation, leadership is only a sophisticated means of upward mobility through institutional advancement. Much of the material I read sounds more like James and John pursuing prominence than Jesus calling us to a life of servanthood and downward mobility; it has more to do with the pursuit of power than the implications of leadership as the power of love.

Jesus’ response to James and John challenges popular assumptions about greatness, power and prominence: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" The other disciples were angry, perhaps afraid that James and John would be given positions which they had sought. But Jesus said to all the disciples, "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The cup from which Jesus drank is self-emptying love, the giving of one’s own life for others. The baptism with which he was baptized is a burial of the old world with its power games and the rising of God’s reign of justice, generosity and joy. This is downward mobility.

The world’s image of greatness is hierarchical, with the greatest at the pinnacle of the pyramid and God hovering over the top. The closer one gets to the pinnacle, the closer one is to greatness and to the image of God. Success, upward mobility and being served are signs of faithfulness to a hierarchical god.

The way of Jesus leads in another direction. Nouwen writes: "The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. . . . It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest."

Giving our lives "as a ransom for many involves making ourselves available to others in response to the One who laid down his life for us. It is offering our total being -- our hope and our despair, our doubts and our faith, our fear and our courage, our ambition and our humility.

James and John at least knew where true greatness lay. They may not have understood what they were asking when they asked to be seated on the right hand and left hand of Jesus, the victorious Christ. They were, however, asking the right person. They suspected that Jesus was the One who would "come into glory," although they did not understand the full implication of their request.

The disciples’ request to be positioned near Christ reflects the ambivalence of the human spirit. On the one hand there is the drive to be somebody, a drive often expressed in substituting power for love. On the other hand there is the lure of Incarnate Love, whose power is manifested in weakness. Following the Christ toward downward mobility and giving oneself to others is authentic greatness.


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