It cannot be that way among you!
To help us understand today’s Scripture, I want to begin with a story from the world of sports. It’s a story about the Olympics that were held in Barcelona in 1992. It was near the end of the men’s four-hundred-meter race when Derrick Redmond of Great Britain suddenly crashed to the track, clutching his right hamstring. Sprawled on the track, Redmond was writhing in pain as the other runners passed him. Inside himself he knew that he had to get up—get up and finish the race. He struggled to his feet and began hopping awkwardly, dragging his injured leg, grimacing in pain.
Television viewers then saw, from the corner of their TV screens, an older man dash past security officials onto the track, running after Redmond. The man attempted to put his arms around the runner, but Redmond pushed him away. But the man continued along with Redmond until the excruciating pain overcame the runner and he slumped into the older man’s arms. The older man helped the runner up. That man was identified as Redmond’s father, Jim. Father and son, arm in arm, continued down the track with the echoing applause supporting them to the finish line. Five minutes later, they crossed the finish line, four minutes and sixteen seconds after the gold medal winner.
When questioned by reporters, the elder Redmond told the gathered press, “I’m more proud of my son than if he had won the race.”
Reporters pointed out that the Redmond’s, father and son, exemplified the Olympic spirit, which according to the founder, Baron de Coubertin in 1896 was: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle.”
I suppose that our competitiveness, our ardent desire to win, starts early in life. I remember times when a good friend would shout, “I’ll race you to that tree,” and off we’d go, each mustering all our energy to be the winner. And if we lost, we’d tend to say, “I’ll get you next time!”
That appears to be the motivation for James and John, who want to get to the top, winning the plum positions of being Jesus’ left and right hand men—helping to run the organization from the top. And then we have the reaction of the other ten Apostles, who become “indignant” at the brash chutzpa of James and John. Perhaps they, too, wanted to get to the top, and perhaps they were mad that James and John would so deeply want to leave the rest of them in the dust of defeat.
We obviously see the motivation to win in sports. Competition can be a good thing, fun to watch, but competition, with huge amounts of money involved at the professional level and even in college sports, can turn the game into a vicious desire to win at any cost. Then, it seems to me, that games are no longer just “games” if winning is all that matters—no matter how you win, and no matter what you do to your opponents in the process.
One article I read recently laments the many ways in which a “me first” attitude is poisoning relationships. We see it in the nastiness of politics, often without much concern for the real problems of the people that those in public office are supposed to serve. We see it in unfair business practices, where the health and well-being of employees don’t seem to matter and anything that helps you get ahead is justified, even if it is immoral or illegal. And we see it in so many personal relationships that are falling apart because of a “me first” attitude that eats away at the relationship like a cancer.
And what does Jesus say? It cannot be that way among you, who claim to be my followers. That is certainly not my way, and nothing like what I stand for. Instead of worrying about how you are going to get to the top, I want you to look around you and find those who are at the bottom. Instead of worrying about how you can win, I want you to help others to become winners—to be appreciated for who they are, children of God, rather than pawns to be used for your advancement. I want you to be like Jim Redmond, who helped his son to win much more than a gold medal. I want you to be like Mother Teresa, who was never so proud or vain that she would refuse to reach down to the bottom, helping those who were abandoned to the ash heap of society as if they were little more than animals. Life is not about winning at any cost; it is about loving and serving and making life better for others. It’s about honor and valor in sports; it’s about making government fair and just and helpful in politics; in business, it’s about giving people a meaningful job in safe conditions, so they can provide for themselves and their families. If it’s only about winning, then everything, even a healthy sense of competition, gets distorted. It must not be that way among you. You are capable of far better, and you must not abandon the way intended by God.
Like Jesus, we are called to lift others up, to recognize their dignity, and restore them fully as children of the one God.