A Different Kind of Power
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?"
October 15, 2021, Words By: Lina Thompson, Image By: Blakely Dadson
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
This was James and John’s request to Jesus immediately after he told them he would be humiliated, tortured, die and rise again.
In the midst of Jesus’ frightening prophecy of his own death, his dedicated followers revealed their hearts’ desire — power. That is the crux of this passage. Where is power? And how can I get some?
One has to admire James and John’s audacity, as misguided as it was. But it appears they had either forgotten, or missed, what Jesus had already told them about the nature of power and where it resides. I empathize with them. I get it. They probably felt justified in their request.
And let’s be honest, any kind of power can be tantalizing. Human beings jockey for power and control in countless ways every day: work meetings, the playground, even intimate relationships. But James and John were interested in an especially intoxicating kind of power. They wanted to overturn the Roman Empire’s rule over them … and they wanted their turn in that seat of power. It makes total sense.
How disappointing, and confusing, it must have been for them to hear Jesus’ answer: “The way to become great is to serve.”
Jesus was intentional about using a term like “servant” as the marker for “greatness.” He is directly and boldly foreshadowing a new way of leading and holding power — one that was contrary to the way the Roman Empire had exerted its’ economic, political, and military power over the Jewish people.
Location, Location, Location
As is often the case, “where” conversations happen are as much a part of Jesus’ teachings as what he says.
The disciples’ question about power comes to Jesus “on the way” to the Cross. All the teaching that Jesus had done up to this point was about to become an object lesson in a big way. He was going to demonstrate how one becomes “great.”
The Cross is the ultimate reorientation of how we understand the nature and purpose of power. It places love, truth, self-sacrifice, vulnerability, honesty and forgiveness at the center — not exactly the standard political playbook.
Out of love, Jesus stepped into the power-hungry cycle of rivalry that motivates so much of the way we live and move in the world. Jesus endured the consequences of our rivalry — he was crucified.
And yet, his act of self-sacrifice and forgiveness unleashed a transformative power like the world has never seen — a power that turns people’s hearts outward, toward the neighbor, the marginalized and even toward those we deem “other” or “enemy.” It’s a power that frees people from the lies of scarcity and the self-centered life those lies produce. Rather, it creates people whose hearts are filled with hospitality and mercy.
Jesus modeled the power of servant-love. And in doing so, he saved us from the trap of the rivalry mindset and showed us God’s abundance. Eugene Peterson, in his Message Translation, puts it this way in verse 45:
“That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served — and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
Jesus’ loving act means that we are saved from the kind of rivalry that holds us hostage in our own lives and diminishes the image of God in others.
As people looking for the Spirit of the resurrection, we are called to co-create NEW ways of holding, sharing and releasing power — for our own sake and for the world’s sake. We don’t have to follow the toxic ways of grabbing and holding on to power — the top-down mindset of always being “first” and “winning.” Because it turns out, those aren’t all that “great” after all. Instead, we are invited to follow Jesus and experience the greatness of divine power that begins from a different starting place … from below.
Dwelling Among Us
Where is the place in your life where you’re most tempted to jockey for power? What would it look like to flip that approach upside down?