This past Sunday, the summer chapel I serve in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, honored its patron Saint James the Fisherman. The scripture reading appointed for the day was from the Gospel of Matthew (20:20-28). It’s the story of a mother bidding on behalf of her of sons - James and John - for a special role in Jesus’ kingdom.
She reminds me of parents that I’ve known, requesting special treatment for their children - like a position on the soccer team, a particular teacher, a preferred seat in the classroom, or even a job. This mother wanted her sons to be the first and second lieutenants in Jesus’ kingdom on earth. She displayed, on their behalf, what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once referred to as “the drum major instinct.”
In a famous sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on February 4, 1968, Dr. King reminded his congregation that before we condemn the mother of James and John too quickly for her selfish request, we should “look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition [and] importance…that same desire for attention, that same desire to be first.” According to Dr. King, we all have the drum major instinct.
The mother of James and John asks, seeks, and knocks on the door of glory. Jesus responds accordingly. You don’t know what you are asking. You haven’t understood a word I’ve said. Are your sons prepared to suffer and die for the cause?
Twentieth century American author Edward Dahlberg once wrote, “Ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.” Although the drum major instinct lives in most of us, if it is not harnessed, it becomes dangerous. It can cause us to lie about who we are; it can make us believe we are somebody other than who we are; and it can lead to snobbish exclusivity and activities that are merely used to gain attention.
As Dr. King said in no uncertain terms, “The final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up.”
Unharnessed ambition is a great peril to both the soul and the public square. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples that whoever wishes to be a great leader must first be a servant.
You want to be great, or your want your kids to be great. Fine, anyone can be great. But first, one has to serve. And then, one has to pay the price of service. Perhaps we should be teaching our children and grandchildren about servanthood rather than greatness. Take that Mr. President.