Ram Dass, the contemporary spiritual teacher and author, tells the story of a rabbi, who in an overwhelming fit of religious passion, ran into the synagogue and fell to his knees and began to cry out, “I am nothing! I am nothing!”
The cantor of the synagogue saw this model of spiritual humility and was so moved he fell to his knees beside the rabbi and cried, “I am nothing! I am nothing!”
Now the sexton, the building superintendent of the synagogue, was walking through the darkened synagogue and couldn’t refrain himself either. He fell to his knees beside the rabbi and the cantor and cried out with all his heart, “I am nothing! I am nothing!” At this, the rabbi nudged the cantor and complained, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
No matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to escape thinking of ourselves and our relationships in terms of position and power. No matter how old we are or what status of life we achieve or fail to achieve, we always have an inner awareness of where we stand in the world.
A vignette from Mark’s gospel tells us a not-so-complimentary conversation held between the disciples to determine who would be granted the roles of power and influence among Jesus’ first followers. James and John sidled up to Jesus and stated their request, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
It’s hard to fill in all the details with certainty what then happened among the other 10 disciples. Was it an indication Jesus’ first group of followers were a group of ambitious and aggressive young bucks that were naturally sorting out the pecking order among them?
Was it a power thing between James and John to settle between those two alone to determine which between them held the reins of power by knowing who would serve on Jesus’ right, the true place of power, and who would serve from the lesser position on Jesus’ left?
Or was this a larger issue as these two brothers joined together in a power coalition against the other 10, leaving only the decision as to who would serve as first in charge and who would serve as second in charge and leaving the other 10 with no real power to wield?
Naturally, overhearing all this, the other 10 were furious with them! “What nerve! How could they possibly think they might be the only ones considered for those positions?” Restated: “Why didn’t I think of that first?”
So Jesus had to settle this petty sibling rivalry. And so too we might consider their struggle for power simply by recognizing we are powerbrokers when it comes to life’s relationships. Some give their power away afraid of its demands and questioning whether they think themselves worthy of it. Others overreach, taking power and privilege away from those around them as a show of their own undernourished ego.
Jesus addressed it squarely, “You don’t even know what you’re asking for. Are you able to drink from the cup that I am to drink from? Are you willing to be baptized with the baptism I am soon to be baptized in?” meaning likely the baptism of death on a cross.
As Jesus and the disciples were deliberately traveling from the area around the Galilee south, climbing toward Jesus’ certain suffering in Jerusalem, only Jesus seemed to be in touch with the reality of what was to take place there. Centered in his thoughts were surely the struggle between power and the right to protect self and the suffering of body and soul that would be the death of ego itself.
If we are to understand the words and the example of Jesus in kingdom matters, we must address the power-lust that is a part of what we are and recognize our need for healing.
Only when we find the way of humility and seek to serve and not to be served will we be able to be what Henri Nouwen calls, “wounded healers,” servants of God in this world. By that he means only when we recognize our own woundedness and the ways we have been broken can we be able to extend the hand of help to people.
It’s our brokenness that enables us to remember what it means to be alienated from God. Only when we are in touch with our own alienation can we offer reconciliation.
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.