If you look at exercise video ads, the sell typically works like this: work hard, sweat hard (i.e., suffer), and the prize you get out of it is a killer body. It might be tempting to apply this sort of mentality to discipleship: work hard for the kingdom, suffer, and get the prize of heaven for it. C. S. Lewis rightly points out in The Problem of Pain that this way of approaching discipleship ultimately does not work: “Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure of heart that they shall see God, for only the pure of heart want to.”
Lewis’s insight strikes me as a key to the Gospel reading for today. Jesus has just given his disciples the third and final prediction of his passion. Recall that after the first prediction, Peter “rebukes” Jesus (8:31–32). After the second, the disciples argue about who among them is the greatest (9:31–34). Today’s reading begins just after the third prediction, with James and John asking to be given places of prestige when Jesus enters his glory. Ultimately, Jesus tells them, these seats are not his to bestow. Their request then occasions another teaching about discipleship: “Those recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave to all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”
The disciples just don’t get it. But do we? Let’s face it, most of us value positions of prestige. Doesn’t the church itself give out awards and hold honors banquets? One could counter that such honors and awards highlight Christian models and celebrate ministerial blessings. Granted. But even so, it’s a thin line that is crossed often. More penetrating, how many of us imagine blessings in this life or heaven in the next as a prize for hard work or suffering endured for the Gospel?
A servant’s heart holds the opposite impulse. It does not seek prestige but opportunities to attend to others. It doesn’t seek a reward for work done or personal prize to claim. The ideal of embracing a servant’s heart seems to me to be the center of Jesus’ teaching today. The emphasis should not be on the suffering that Christian discipleship might include, though Jesus reminds James and John that this will be their lot. Nor is it directly about leadership or lording authority over those under us, though this too is important. Discipleship, as Jesus frames it here, is best understood as reorienting one’s whole psyche, regardless of whether one suffers much or little, has much authority or little. To embrace true discipleship is to take on the mind of Christ, who took the form of a slave (Phil 2:5–7); it is putting on a new divine nature (Col 3:10); it is becoming conformed to the image of Christ himself (Rom 8:29).
The second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, describes the high priesthood of Jesus, who has passed through the heavens (to the eternal temple) and invites us to come to him there. Hebrews wants to remind us that though Jesus bears the stamp of the divine nature (1:3), he is fully human: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” Jesus did not sin, not because of his divine nature, but because of his human one, one that was fully actualized. In the same way, our putting on of this new divine nature and being conformed into the image of Christ does not entail leaving behind our human nature. Christian discipleship effects a spiritual renewal that enables us to live our human lives as fully and deeply as possible.
Put it all together: What does it mean to be human? Servant. What does it mean to be Christian? Servant. What does the divine nature look like? Servant. Who belongs in heaven? No mercenaries, just servants.