Today, I get to see my beautiful and brilliant granddaughter, Brigid. I wrote this when she was eight. She is now a college graduate—Michigan State University—and starting a PhD at The University of Chicago. This is another “essay” from an unpublished manuscript called Stealing Donkeys and Other Ways of Serving the Master.
James and John said to Jesus, “Hey, we’ve got a deal for you.” “So what is it?” said Jesus. “Well, when you’ve made it all the way to the top, we want to share the props and perks, one of us sitting on your right, the other one on your left.” Jesus said, “You don’t have a clue. Can you drink from my cup, take my baptism?” “Sure,” said James and John. “You’re right about that,” said Jesus. “You will drink from that cup and receive that baptism, but the right and left hand places, those aren’t mine to say. They’re already spoken for.”
When the rest of the gang heard about it, they were mad at James and John. So Jesus called them and said, “You know with the Gentiles, how the ones they elect to lead then lord it over them and act like they’re entitled to do anything they want? That’s not our way. If you want to be a great leader, you have to be a humble servant. Whoever wants to be first has to be last, a slave to everybody. The Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45, VSR) (Also Matthew 20:20-28, in which their mother asks for the best places for James and John.)
Our eight-year-old granddaughter, Brigid Mary, is into competitive loving. If you say to her “I love you,” she replies, “I love you more.” Recently she and her mother had been escalating the stakes.
“I love you, Brigid, more than I love chocolate.”
“That’s nothing; I love you more than I love Barbie dolls.”
“Well,” said Katie, “I love you more than pigs love slop.”
Then Brigid played her trump card, the game-ender.
“I love you more,” she told her mother, “than Grandpa loves me.”
“That’s her gold standard,” her mother said later as she told me this story. “She can’t conceive of anybody being able to top how much you love her.”
Brigid is right, of course. No one has ever been loved by anyone more than she is loved by me. Of course, that can correctly and accurately be said by many grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.
It bothers my wife when Brigid says “I love you more.” She thinks that love should not be a competitive sport. It should just be…well, love. She’s not sure where Brigid picked up the idea of competitive loving.
Actually, we’ve always been mystified by where she learns things. Once, when she was two, the plumber was working in their basement. Without her mother’s knowledge, Brigid went down to observe. When she came back up she said, “Things weren’t going too well down there, so I said ‘damn’ for him.”
“Brigid, where did you learn that word? At pre-school?”
No, she didn’t think it was at pre-school, or any of the other places her mother suggested. Finally, she said, “It must have been at the Grandma and Grandpa house. They were just sitting around saying ‘damn.’”
Now there are two problems with that tale. One is that when Brigid was present, there was no sitting around. The other is that she hadn’t been there when we were dealing with the telephone company, but that’s a different story.
I think some things are just in the air, and ‘damn’ is probably one of them. Another is this matter of competition. It’s in the very air we breathe. We live in a competitive ethos. Apparently James and John did, too. They knew they couldn’t be Numero Uno, but they wanted to be as close to him as they could get, on his right and left hands. They wanted to share the glory.
Obviously if you’re sitting at the head table, right beside the guest of honor, you’re expecting the waiters to be at your beck and call, filling your glass, bringing a different entre’ if you don’t like the first one. You don’t expect to get up and go to the back of the room to take water and rolls to those who couldn’t afford the higher priced tickets, the ones that get you a table up front.
But that’s what Jesus says you’re supposed to do, to follow his example. You should want to be first, to be the best, the greatest, the top of the heap, but what that means is that you’re the best at being the least, the best at taking care of others, the one who’s best at taking orders instead of giving them. The meaning of the sacrifice of the cross is that God loves each of us more than any other.
There is always a competition going on within us, between our best and worst selves. It’s a hard and uncomfortable battle, and we’re the battlefield. The way we avoid that internal battle is by “taking it outside,” as they say about arguments in bars. We replace the necessary internal competition between our best and worst selves with external competition in sports and business and politics so we don’t have to deal with the discomfort of the internal competition. It’s a system where for every winner, there are many losers, and where even if we’re a winner one time, we’ll be losers many more times.
Jesus not only encourages us to keep the battle going inside, but he’s there with us, hoping and helping with our best selves. Jesus doesn’t say competition is bad, just that we misunderstand its purpose and location. We’re not to be the best so our worst selves can lord it over others, say “Na-na-nanana” to them, but so our best selves can say, “I love you more.”