The Best Seat in the House
"The standard of greatness in the Kingdom is the standard of the Cross.”
- William Barclay
The passage from St. Mark’s gospel account of the request of James and John (Mark 10:35-45) deals with a very common, problematic and frequently misunderstood aspect of what it means to be both human - and - identified as follower of Jesus Christ.
From a secular - or worldly - standpoint, ambition is a quality in fellow human beings we tend to appreciate and even admire. Those driven by a desire to be successful tend to be active people who exert positive energy and make things happen. The ambitious ones are the “movers and shakers” of the world. This type of person can be fun to be around and is often the life of the party.
Fictional race car driver Ricky Bobby, from the movie Talladega Nights, nicely summed up the mindset of wildly ambitious people when he quipped, “If you ain’t first, you’re last!”
Those with an internal drive to be a better person, to make the world a better place and to achieve success in every part of one’s life tend to have a positive impact on those around them. Many of us nervously laugh at Ricky Bobby’s comment in a way that suggests his quote is more true than we care to admit and is something we would not utter out loud.
So, we might agree that ambition – purely as a motivating factor – is not necessarily a negative thing.
The problem with ambition is that it often transforms from a positive motivating factor into a self-centered desire to create a better existence for oneself at the expense of others. This is a direct violation of Jesus command to his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15) and “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
Especially from a Christ-centered perspective, the problem with selfish ambition is that self-love resides deep within the heart and occupies the throne reserved for God. It is difficult to honor and keep the Lord’s greatest commandment, namely, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” (Mark 12:30) when so much of one’s mind is occupied with inordinately seeking one’s own advantage.
This was the self-centered, and thus sinful, attitude in which James and John approached Jesus. Even though the brothers never wavered in their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and followed him to the ends of the earth, their request was one of self-interest and selfish ambition, revealing their ignorance of Jesus’ truest nature.
The brothers’ desire was for Jesus to grant them the best seats in the house; the prominent places at the table; and the highest offices obtainable. Mark’s gospel account gives us every indication the brothers honestly believed they were worthy of – and even deserved – these places of privilege and honor. The brothers selfishly desired to be first, not last.
With a beautiful combination of grace and truth, Jesus responds to the brothers by suggesting they had no idea what they were asking and assuring them a position of honor “belongs to those for whom it has been prepared” (Mark 10:40).
Even Jesus, whose life’s mission was to lay down his life so that others might live, was not in a position to grant places of honor. Jesus himself would have to go through hell to open the doors of heaven for those he came to save and, in doing so, would model for his disciples of all ages the selflessness required to be a genuine follower of Christ.
As theologian William Barclay notes, “(Jesus) was telling these two disciples that without a cross there can never be a crown. The standard of greatness in the Kingdom is the standard of the Cross” (The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 255).
Ricky Bobby, it turns out, had life pegged exactly backwards - as he would discover later in the film. A “successful” life is not marked by selfishly striving to be first, especially when it causes harm to others. Rather, true freedom and contentment can be found in following the example of Jesus Christ whose life was marked by a singular desire to set his own ambitions aside and to do the will of Him who sent him.
Those most truly alive and walking before God with joy in their hearts are those who have discovered the truth of Jesus proclamation that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).