Scripture: Mark 10:35-45
Six years ago Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments a credit card processing company, took an action that turned his company upside down. In 2015 Gravity Payments was like most companies where the priority was on profit first and the pay scale was highest at the top with the CEO and then dramatically falling from there. This is the way most companies work today where the CEOs make 320 times more than the average employee. In 2015 Price became deeply concerned when he discovered that one of his secretaries was working a part-time job at McDonalds on the weekends in order to provide the support her family needed. It bothered him that he lived so comfortably yet his employees were apparently struggling to get by. Dan Price turned his business upside down. Instead of prioritizing profit above all else he chose to prioritize employees. Instead of prioritizing a pay scale that was hierarchical and put most of the money at the top he instituted a $70,000 minimum salary for all employees. To help make this possible, he took a 90% pay cut, reducing his salary to the same $70,000 that he paid everyone else.
Many business pundits ridiculed this move. They said that removing the incentive of competing for a higher and higher salary would reduce productivity, they said that spending so much in “overhead” to pay people would bankrupt the company, and they said this was a doomed experiment from the start. It turns out they were wrong. Five years later, Gravity Payments is thriving. The business has grown and even opened a new office in a different state. Employee retention is at an all-time high, as is productivity, and employee satisfaction. Dan Price wrote a book called Worth It advocating for a business practice that prioritizes employees and based off his experience he is an advocate for turning the way business is normally done upside down.
I know that the actions of Dan Price were not religiously motivated, but when I first heard his story I could not help but think of this morning’s scripture. A CEO giving up 90% of their pay to be paid the same as all of their employees sounds a lot like the embodiment of Jesus’s words: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Jesus was also advocating turn things upside down. As we consider this morning’s scripture I think we will find wisdom to this approach. When we turn the way this broken world works upside down, then it finally starts to feel right side up.
While I think we get the gist of James and John’s request, to sit at the left and right of Jesus when he comes into his glory, a little cultural context helps give a fuller understanding. At a formal banquet in the first century, there was a very strict seating order. Often at the head or center of the table would sit the person of honor. If this was party thrown in honor of someone, they would sit there. Otherwise the seat would go to the most important person in the room. This might be the host, or depending on the event it could be a powerful official or ruler of some sort. From this person, everyone else would fall in line. The second most important or prestigious person would then sit to this person’s right, and the third most important or prestigious person would then be the left. It would go back and forth like this from right to left filling the table. Everyone knew their place and they knew where they were in relation to everyone else. It was kind of a bold move, but James and John swung for the fences. They believed that Jesus was the messiah, and they believed that he would usher in a new kingdom, so they wanted to secure their position early. By asking to sit at the left and right of Jesus they were essentially asking to be the second and third most important, respected, and powerful people in God’s eternal kingdom right after Jesus.
Upon hearing that, our reaction is probably similar to that of the other ten disciples. The scripture records. “they became indignant.” There was probably a bunch of “just who do you think you are?” and “someone’s a little too big for their britches.” At the same time though, we cannot really fault James and John. After all they were only doing what some of us probably would have tried to do, and what we are all taught to do. Our culture in general celebrates winners. A lot of people bemoan that everyone gets a trophy today, but despite that little oddity our culture by and large our culture sends messages that winning is everything and reaching the top is the most important thing we can do. We want to be the MVP, we want to be #1, we want to be the king of the hill, and we want to be the person at the top of heap. James and John were just being ambitious. In most situations, we would applaud their move as one that shows a boldness that should be awarded. If the other ten disciples were being honest, they wanted the same thing. They were not indignant because of the audacity of James and John’s request. They were indignant because they got beat to the punch!
Seeking to be the first of greatest is the way of the world, and we know it. Ambition is celebrated as a character virtue, those who wealth and power try to promote themselves as role models, and people run themselves ragged in an attempt to get a head. A constant pressure to be viewed as winners or number one might be the way of the world, but it is not the way of Jesus. Jesus flips the script. He turns everything upside down. Jesus points out that the way of the world during his time was the same way it is today. People carve power and authority, and then they “lord that power over others.” Jesus though offers a different way. The world of Jesus day and the world of our day defines success by reaching the top, by having the most, and by being regarded as the best. Jesus though redefines success. Jesus tells us what success looks like in the kingdom of God. Success is not based on how much you get, it is based on how much you give away; it is not based on what you earn, it is based on how you put others first. Jesus is clear, we should not seek or measure success on the same terms the world uses.
This is a point that gospel of Mark hammer again and again. In chapter 9 the disciples are arguing about who is greatest and Jesus tells them “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last and a servant to all.” Then at the beginning of Mark 10 Jesus lifts up the little children. We looked at this scripture two weeks ago, and the reason why Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to those like little children is to reinforce the idea that the kingdom of God inverts the worldly power structure. This is then followed up with the scripture of the rich young ruler that we looked at last week, where Jesus confirms the rich and powerful cannot buy their way into heaven, that the way the world measures success is not how God measures success in the heavenly kingdom. This small section of Mark find different ways to hit the same point. As my college history professor, Dr. Parks, said, “If the teacher repeats the same thing more than once you need to pay attention and write it down.” Hopefully we are paying attention, because in this morning’s scripture the theme that Mark’s gospel has been coming back to time and time again gets laid out in the bluntest way. When James and John ask to be the top guys in the kingdom of God, Jesus responds by saying, “Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
It can be easy for us to take the point of what Jesus is saying, boil it down and overly simplify it. We can take what Jesus saying and convert it into the moral lesson that “we need to be considerate of others”, or “we need to take time to think about people other than ourselves.” While those are morality lessons we should take to heart, oversimplifying what Jesus says in this morning’s scripture to that reduces the true power of his message. Jesus did not say to be considerate, he said “whoever wants to be first must be a slave to all.” This statement is more than just a verbal illustration. Remember, Jesus lived in an era where slavery was a practice and social custom. Slavery in the Roman world, while not racially motivated or as dehumanizing as the American experience, was still not exactly a situation anyone wanted to be in. In the first century slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder. Everyone had a seat above of them at the table. James and John requested the best seats of honor but Jesus told them, they should be seeking the seats with the least honor.
We also have to consider the life of a slave. Slaves were forced to serve others, even if they did not want to. Serving others is what defined a slave’s entire existence. In other words, Jesus was telling his disciples that what they should seek is a life that is fully dedicating to serving the needs of others. Putting others first is not something that they did when they felt like it or when it fit in their schedule, putting others first, serving others, and being a slave of all should be the very nature of a disciple. This is the example that Jesus gave us. If anyone could have achieved power, authority, and success by the measure of the world it was Jesus. Being the very nature of God, he could have accomplished whatever he wanted, but Jesus was obedient to the point of death to serve others. He put the needs of the world before his own on the cross for he “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom of many.”
I have to wonder how James and John felt when they heard Jesus say this. They might have been asking themselves, “What exactly did we sign up for?” After all, being a “slave to all” is not exactly a perk in any real sense. Despite that though, the two brothers took Jesus example to heart and they were faithful disciples who put others first. John is often attributed to be the author of the gospel of John as well as the three small espistles that bear his name. Christian tradition also attributes the book of Revelation to him, which is stated he wrote while in exile on Patamos. James was obedient to following Christ to the ultimate end, and Christian tradition holds that he was the first of the twelve disciples to be martyred for his faith. Being a slave to all, does not sound glamorous, it even sounds a little upside down. Yet it is the way that Jesus shows us.
The way of the world is hierarchical, where the goal is to climb one peg higher, to get more, and to be the one at the top. Our culture tells us that if we work hard enough we could gain the whole world, but it is a rigged game and Jesus tells us it is not a game worth playing. Earlier in the gospel of Mark, in Mark 8:36 Jesus is recorded as saying “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” When we follow the ways of the world we might gain much but at what cost? When we follow Jesus in to the upside down of the kingdom of God we gain immeasurably more.
Dan Price found that for himself personally, when he gave up a million dollar salary, and instead focused on the wellbeing of his employees he found his own well-being improved. He found his personal happiness increased when he stopped investing in being #1 and instead invested in others. We may not all have a million dollar salary to forfeit, but we all can follow Jesus. We all can seek greatness by being a servant. We can find standing in God’s Kingdom by being a slave to all. So who will you serve today? What action will you take that puts someone else first?
May that not just be a rhetorical question today, but may it be a thought that turns into action. May you live a life upside down where you seek to put others first. May you live like no one else, may you live like Jesus, may you live like a citizen of God’s kingdom . May we all live upside down.