Because we are a democracy, we also think we are a meritocracy, that is, everyone has an equal opportunity to advance in life based on the work that she or he is willing to do. So when things don’t seem to work that way, we get unsettled and angry. Why did that particular person get a promotion at work? How come they didn’t pick me for their team? I got an A+ so I should be first. And, of course, one of the main battlegrounds on which carry out this fight is in college admissions, affirmative action, allowing someone with somewhat lower grades to be admitted in place of someone else.
When we think about it, however, there are many factors that make meritocracy hard to pull off. One is simply the fact that people know other people and take that into consideration. “My next door neighbor has been out of work and is looking for a job. Can you help her out?” Or just look at the way many relatives of politicians end up with government jobs—even for politicians that scream the most about equal opportunity? Daughters and in-laws, sons and friends. Tell me this isn’t the same nepotism that plagued much of history!
So when Zebedee’s sons, James and John, ask Jesus for a favor so they can get ahead, the other apostles are furious. I suspect some of their anger is that they didn’t ask for the favor first. They keep asking among themselves who is the greatest, who is number one, who is the most favored. Are they going to get ahead on their merits or is Jesus going to do them special favors?
The answer to this is not easy for the disciples to learn, and it’s not easy for most Christians to learn. Most of us think we are going to be saved because we work at it, because we earn it. Jesus is telling his disciples, like he is telling us, that everything we have comes as a gift—and the greatest gift we can receive is to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that is, to receive the same grace that he received.
You will drink of the same cup that I drink from, says Jesus. You will undergo the same baptism that I undergo. Because the sacraments that Jesus lets us share make us one with his death and resurrection, make us one with the grace that he earned by his perfect listening to his Father. If we have merits, that is because Jesus gives us the merits of his grace.
But these are not merits Jesus received because he put himself ahead of other people. The fundamental stance of Jesus is to be a servant, not to hold power over people but to give himself in generous self-sacrifice for the sake of others. That is the greatest grace we can receive, to be servants who give ourselves for the needs of others. At the heart of Jesus’ Kingdom we don’t find meritocracy; rather, we find the abundance of divine love and life that flows from giving ourselves to others in service.
The competition Jesus wants among his disciples isn’t who is going to be number one, or who is going to get ahead. The competition Jesus wants is this: who will follow him as he takes on our weakness in order to show that it is not our strength that counts; rather, it’s the strength of God’s love which is the only power on which Jesus relies.
The only way to get ahead in Jesus’ Kingdom is to walk behind him in humble service.