Author: Fr George Dimopoulos
Source: Orthodox Sermons for all the Sundays of the Year – Volume I
Publisher: Christian Orthodox Editions
“Whoever wants to be first must be willing to be the slave of all”. (Mark 10:32-45)
Dearly beloved in Christ, we have now reached the 5th Sunday of the Great Fast, as we continue to approach the life-giving Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. The time grows short. The eyes of the enemy of our souls are ceaselessly upon us. It is time to remind ourselves of the words of our Lord to His disciples, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may be spared the test” (Luke 22:46). Speaking of the demons who torment our souls, our Lord said, “This kind can come out by nothing but with prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).
The Lord, taking leave of Galilee and Samaria, crosses the Jordan river, passes by Jericho, and climbs the uphill road that leads from Jericho to Jerusalem, that the great city which throughout history killed the Prophets of God, and stoned those sent by God to help her. As Jesus walks along, the roads are overflowing with Jews, coming to celebrate the Passover. The pilgrims sing the beautiful words of the Psalter: “My heart was glad when they said unto me, let us go up to the house of the Lord”. In place of these joyous songs, however, Christ has only this dirge: “Behold, we go to Jerusalem; and the Son of God will be delivered into the hands of men”.
The disciples cannot comprehend the meaning of these words. They dream. They wonder whether Christ’s prophecy of His own passion will actually be fulfilled. One looks at another. No one knows the answer. They had been looking forward to royal positions, to an earthly kingdom, to secular thrones on which they were to sit judging the twelve tribes of Israel. What a disappointment! St John Chrysostom comments, “The cross still loomed ahead in the future; neither had the grace of the Holy Spirit been granted them. After the Crucifixion, after Pentecost, after the advent of the Holy Spirit, they would understand fully the significance of their positions”. But Christ continues His prophecy. He does not stop with the Cross. His is a message of hope. For the first time in man’s long history, the glimmer of hope appears on the horizon. “Courage!”, He proclaims. “On the third day I will rise from the dead!”
In the midst of this prophecy, Jesus is approached by the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, who have a rather unique request to make of the Master. Matthew informs us that their mother aided them in this venture: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him” (Matt. 20:20). They ask for two thrones of secular authority, one on the right hand and one on the left hand of Jesus. They did not understand the prophecy of Christ: where, in a few days, two bloodied crosses would stand, one on either side of the redemptive Cross of our Lord. The two brothers instead pictured two princely thrones. Jesus replies, “You don’t know what you are asking”.
How well these words of Christ apply also to us today, for today’s people do not know what they are asking of Christ; neither do they know what He is asking of them. How many times do we ask of Christ those things which are the world’s to give us: human glory, wealth, sensual pleasures, power and dominion over others. These things we ask of Christ, and from the world we ask those things which only Christ, through His Church, can give us: genuine life, truth, salvation, grace, redemption, sanctification. In this way, a respected and noted author wisely writes concerning the confusion of our age: Christians use the language of the atheists, and atheists use the vocabulary of Christians.
To speak more concretely, the people in our parishes, in our communities, often expect the wrong things from the Church. The laymen want to exercise the position of the clergy, while the clergy are overly interested in the affairs of the laity. How fitting these words of Christ are for us: “You don’t know what you are asking”. We wish to get ahead by exerting mastery over others, by grasping the lead with our own powers, whether or not they happen to coincide with the Christian ethic.
How different is Christ’s concept of being first. He who would be first must be the voluntary servant of all, expecting nothing in return. Let him who thinks himself superior, take the basin and towel of Christ, and let him wash the feet of his brothers. True Christian dignity and glory are based not on the occupation of the highest places at banquets, not yet on pride or arrogance, but upon the humble, loving service a Christian renders to others. Christ is completely indifferent to the number of high-society friends you have. He cares not to whose exclusive party you were invited. Rather, you are numbered among the first when you visit those who lie alone in hospitals, when you wash their wounds, when you feed the poor, when you lead the blind, when you wash the feet of your brother, placing yourself beneath him. “Not in the brightness of the crown”, writes St Photios the Great, “but in the heroism of the basin in which our Lord washed the disciples’ feet, is judged the value and genuineness of a true leader”.
Empty barrels make the most noise; those full of oil are quiet, yet firm. Before the harvest, the standing grain in a wheat field stands straight and tall; but when its ears are heavily-laden with golden grain, it is stooped over like an old woman. St Paul exhorts us, in 1 Corinthians 12:31, to earnestly desire the best gifts, the most worthwhile talents and qualifications – not those that bring glory from the lips of men, but those that enable us to serve God and aid man. These gifts we must seek the only moral way – through prayer and inner struggle. If you would be first in our Lord’s estimation, you must imitate, not the rulers of this world, but the humble spirit of the Master Himself, who told us, “I am not come to be ministered unto, but to serve”.