You know that the 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. (Matthew 20.25-26)
Mama and the Thunder Boys
Occasionally we happen on a Gospel passage that invites us to see Jesus smile. These moments are very rare, although I’m prone to think it’s an editing decision by the writers to ensure His words retain their gravity more than anything. How could Jesus not find Zaccheus’s scramble up a tree amusing or smile benevolently at Peter after his water-walk goes awry? In Mark 3, He assembles His core disciples, including two brothers, James and John, whom He calls “Sons of Thunder.” (v17) Since nicknames often poke fond fun, we can imagine Jesus smiling at this. It sounds funny. We don’t know why it’s funny, however, until we read Matthew 20, where the Thunder Boys’ mama shows up. With all the finesse of a stage mother, she thunders up to Jesus and asks for a favor. Now that we get it, it’s not funny.
Mama Thunder wants her boys to stand on either side of Jesus in Heaven. Aside from the rudeness of the request, her timing couldn’t be worse. The days are closing in on Christ’s final trip to Jerusalem. The crowds have dwindled, the frequency of miracles has tapered, and Jesus’s enemies are becoming more aggressive. Uncertainty fuels tension within the ranks. Christ narrows His message down to a constant drumbeat: the least shall be the greatest, the first the last, the master the servant, and so on. When He’s not stressing this, He turns to predictions of His death. His followers fail to connect the two; they don’t see He’s prepping them to proceed in His absence. Just prior to Mama Thunder’s request, He says, “We’re going to Jerusalem, where I’ll be handed over to the authorities, tried, and executed. But I’ll be raised to life three days later.” Then here comes Mama to secure privileged status for her boys before anyone beats them to it. She’s not understood a word. Neither have her sons, apparently. Jesus looks at them in Matthew 20.22. “You don’t know what you’re asking,” He says. “Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?” They believe they can.
In my line of work, marketing communications, the litmus for predicting strategic success is WIIFM—“What’s in it for me?” Messages promising personal benefits for their audience gain wider acceptance than those aimed at promoting ideals or the greater good. This doesn’t necessarily exclude inspiring idealism or higher purpose, though. All that’s required is individualizing the appeal—for instance, motivating sales reps to take personal pride in how their products improve customers’ lives. Then, as the culture grows more adept at inferring WIIFM, the messaging gains subtler, more philosophically complex meaning. No finer example of this evolution exists than Jesus’s teaching. In its earliest iterations, He consistently links behavioral changes to spiritual and personal rewards. But over time, the WIIFM falls away. His listeners intuitively grasp practicing His principles will prove beneficial. Which is why Mama Thunder’s request is both unexpected and unsettling.
What she and the Thunder Boys ask is so totally off-base Matthew reports, “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.” (v24) To prevent the rift from tearing the group apart—particularly at such a critical hour—Jesus pulls them together to calm them down. His deftness in handling the dust-up is a feat of diplomatic genius. He neither takes the Thunder Boys to task nor reverts to simplistic WIIFM reasoning to reinforce His message. Instead, he deflects attention from James and John with an example everyone can relate to. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” He says, “and their high officials exercise authority over them.” (v25) Then He gently reasserts His status principle by citing them as a prime example. “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be first among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave,” He says. (v26-27) Finally, Jesus directly connects this attitude with His pending death: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v28) “We’ve moved past WIIFM,” Jesus informs the disciples. “We’re now at WIIFT”—what’s in it for them? He ends the debate by turning the entire conversation around.
The Service Mandate
Most definitely, Christ’s message is packed with WIIFM: new life, joy, healing, peace of mind, and meaningful existence, to name a few. And when we follow His way we discover the magnitude of what’s in it for us. But especially for those of us eager to claim the benefits of God’s unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of gender, background, or sexual orientation, it’s imperative we accept the service mandate attached to them. Going only so far as the WIIFM takes us doesn’t take us far enough. At some point, the emphasis shifts to WIIFT. Our journey to Jerusalem leads into Jerusalem, where the question changes from “Where do we stand with Christ?” to “What will we sacrifice for others?” Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve. If we sincerely desire to follow Him all the way, we have to switch from WIIFM to WIIFT.
The first thing we learn after moving past WIIFM is how much WIIFT takes out of us. Life on the giving end inevitably presents challenges that sap our strength and test our patience. That’s why we examine our motives. If hopes of personal praise, recognition, or satisfaction filter into our sacrifice, we’ve reverted to WIIFM, and our efforts will yield no rewards. But if we press on, we’ll find needed strength to serve. In 2 Corinthians 13.4, Paul urges us to follow Christ’s service example: “To be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.” As our Lenten journey draws nearer Jerusalem, the weariness many of us feel is more than traveler’s fatigue. It’s the emptying of self that makes room for service. We’ve moved past WIIFM. We’re now at WIIFT.
The WIIFM Kool-Aid is highly addictive, but it can only take us so far. At some point, we have to switch from WIIFM to WIIFT.
Postscript: Servant Song
Despite its familiarity and simplicity—perhaps because of them—this song will never grow old.