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The Drum Major Instinct.

Updated: Dec 12, 2023


Mark's Gospel is unique. He alone recalls Jesus bidding us to be "slaves to all". It is perhaps understandable that Matthew and Luke found the "slave of all " idea to be a bit difficult to accept.


I suspect that few of us would read the words "slave of all" and not see in them any good news. We are not brought up to regard a life of subservience to others as desirable. We are geared up to succeed, and that is rarely viewed in relationship to serving others.


So what did Jesus mean by our becoming slaves and servants?


We can assume that the people around Jesus questioned their own likelihood for salvation. So the rich young man in last week's gospel reading is not out of the ordinary when he questions Jesus: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Indeed, instead of telling the rich young man to part with his riches to support Jesus and the disciples, Jesus tells him to hand over his wealth to those in need.


And it is here where Jesus gives us the key to obtaining eternal life. Getting into heaven is not the difficult thing, living with others here in this life is far more difficult. Jesus gives the disciples a reality check. The disciples are still hoping that Jesus will overthrow the Romans and become an earthly king. But that's not what it's about.


Jesus tells the disciples a thing or two about the earthly rulers, the Gentiles, whom they have heard about. "Look at the great ones among them," I paraphrase, Jesus says. "Not only are they bossy, the greatest among them are tyrants.'" Jesus is teaching them the meaning of human greatness as it applies to the rulers. The rulers are merciless and cruel to their people. They are oppressors. That is what a "tyrant" is and does.


Of course, Jesus and the disciples knew about the Romans and the way they treated the occupied lands. "Look at them," he tells them, "but it is not so among you." What Jesus tells them turns their world upside down. "But it is not so among you." Essentially Jesus is telling them, "You want to be great? Become a servant. You want to be first Become last. Become a slave of all."


Clearly James and John were given a new message from Jesus. What they learned was that God's Kingdom was an eternal life that is far from being an exclusive club. In their surprise they discovered that in Heaven all are welcomed. And I suspect they really didn't mind that, just as long as they were in positions of power, status and authority over the masses.


James and John experienced first hand how widely Jesus mixed with others and how readily he accepted the offerings of all sorts of people. They experienced how little Jesus used the possibility of salvation as a motivator(either as a stick or a carrot)to get people to follow him or to support his cause. What revolutionary values!


No wonder the leaders of the day, political and religious alike crucified him. Those leaders did not want the slaves becoming first. They did not want the most eminent people becoming servants. Are we surprised that they would have this reaction? We shouldn't be. It still happens, even today. Only today, we may not crucify them, but we may harass them or simply ignore them.


We may say Jesus didn't really mean it. It was, perhaps, Oriental exaggeration he was using, a figure of speech. Yes, but how many people die for a figure of speech. He meant it alright. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."


So, how do we today exercise the command to be a "servant of all"? Jesus' idea of service is not meant to be merely helping other people, but it is a signifier of a complete acceptance of that individual, as a receiver and giver of God's Grace to others. This is the message. Our gift to Him is to imitate Him in service to others, our gift to God is to take part in Jesus' Ministry of Healing, in the here and now. As Jesus spent His ministry travelling Palestine visiting one and all, we too will find God out there - in our own day to day lives- He is out there blessing our attempts to do what is right, blessing our attempts to love, as we both serve and accept service from others.


We should recognize that "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." Like Jesus, let us permit ourselves to offer our gifts to the world unconditionally. And allow ourselves to permit others be themselves - for the good news is surely that others don't have to live up to our expectations. The invitation is always open for Jesus to come into our lives and work through us for the salvation of the world. Even today, the invitation is there for us to receive the servant into our hearts so that He may lead us to eternal life.


The day did come when the disciples understood what Jesus meant. But do we understand? How many times do we meet a politician, a bishop, or a person of perceived higher stature and ask them if they are servants of the people, of the congregation, of the children etc.? Do we ourselves enter into a job or a position in order to serve or to be served?


These are questions that each of us must answer in our hearts. We need to remember what Isaiah says about the suffering servant. This is not an easy road to travel. We need to keep in mind what the Epistle to the Hebrews says: "The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword... it is able to judge the thought and intentions of the heart." From this, we realize how difficult this life of servanthood is and how often we fail. But then we go on and continue to find strength. "We have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." So, should we condemn John and James for their desire to position themselves in leadership roles with Jesus? As mentioned we don't know what was in their hearts. Was it selfishness or service?



"The Drum Major Instinct" is what Dr. Martin Luther King preached on February 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Five days after his assassination excerpts of that same sermon were played in that same church. "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and one the other at your left." And there you have it! The drum major instinct.


Dr. King, in that sermon, recalled how we would condemn James and John for their selfishness. He challenges his listeners, however: "Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves." We have the same basic desires for recognition, for importance, that same desire for attention, to be first.


"It's a kind of drum Major instinct," Dr. King says, "to want to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first." It starts as a little child - "a bundle of ego," he says. It continues in adulthood - praise is "vitamin A for the ego."


Dr. King spends plenty of time explaining how the Drum Major Instinct can be detrimental to one's well being: competition, materialism, dishonesty, exclusivism, racism. But there is a positive side to the Drum Major Instinct, as well. In fact, to be Jesus' disciple we must have the instinct.


But Jesus reordered priorities. "He teaches us, "Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do." For Dr. King, and for that matter, all of us, it is reordered priorities that will bring peace to the world. It is reordered priorities that will convert people to support a consistent life ethic. It is reordered priorities that will condemn the "fight makes right" mentality, as only 'right makes right'.


"And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness," King concludes. "If you want to be important -- wonderful. If you want to be recognized -- wonderful. If you want to be great --wonderful. But recognize that the greatest among you shall be your servant. That's your new definition of greatness . .. Everybody can be great.



For Morning Prayer on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost Previously published as Slave of All on April 22nd,2000 {Revised as The Drum Major Instinct on December 11th, 2022}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2022

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