In the Gospel reading at Mass on Sunday, Oct. 17th, Jesus taught His disciples about the concept of power and authority. The discussion was prompted by James and John, who asked Jesus to give them the most prestigious and important positions in His kingdom. Jesus just laughed and said, “You do not know what you are asking.”
The rest of the disciples, however, were not so amused. We read, “When the [other] ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.”
Jesus gathered them all around and pointed out something they already knew: people in authority often “lord it over” their subjects. In other words, they arrogantly exercise power over those below them.
This is the way of the world. We understand this just as much as the disciples did. People in positions of high authority — politicians, business executives, cops, teachers, coaches — often wield power like tyrants, barking out orders left and right, and becoming angry when those orders aren’t immediately carried out.
Since this behavior is so common, we assume it is perfectly normal and natural. In one sense it is natural, if by natural we mean mankind’s sinful fallen state. But if by natural we mean this behavior is good and acceptable, we are sadly mistaken — just like the disciples.
“Lording it over” people in lower positions springs from pride, which Scripture teaches is the first and worst of all sins. C.S. Lewis wrote that pride is what made the Devil the Devil. It is the desire to be better than everyone else and, just as important, to make sure that everyone else knows it. Pride is the complete anti-God state of mind.
Lewis also explained that pride is competitive. As long as there is someone else in the world who is [fill in the blank: richer, cleverer, better looking, etc.], then the prideful person will not be satisfied. I suspect this is why the other ten disciples were indignant at James and John. They were not upset because the two brothers had the chutzpah to ask for important positions in Jesus’ kingdom; they were upset because they didn’t think of it first!
Jesus told the Twelve that whoever wishes to be great must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all. Then Jesus said that He “did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”
The Gospel reading does not tell us how the disciples reacted, but I bet they were thinking to themselves, “What in the world is this guy talking about?” To natural, sinful, prideful minds, Jesus’ words make no sense. It would be as if a corporate CEO said one of his main duties is to fetch coffee for the folks on the loading dock. Or if a college president said he wants to scrub toilets in the dorms. If either of these situations actually happened, we would say these people have a screw loose, since they’re neglecting their real duties. It makes no sense to our worldly minds.
In God’s spiritual reality, things are often the exact opposite compared to here on earth. Jesus’ lesson this week is a profound Christian paradox: whoever wishes to be great must be a servant. There are many others, by the way: you must die to live, the last shall be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, you must give to receive, etc. Each paradox makes no sense to the natural mind, but makes perfectly good sense from God’s point of view.
Jesus’ own life is proof that these Christian paradoxes are true. The incarnate Son of God, the Word through whom the entire universe was created, got down on His hands and knees and washed the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper. The next day He conquered sin by dying on the cross. And three days after that He conquered death once and for all by rising from the dead.
No doubt Jesus’ view on power and authority is very difficult to understand, especially as long as we’re on this side of eternity. But the more we strive each day to imitate the Master, the more our selfish pride will take a back seat, and the more we’ll be filled with peace and serenity.