Augustine says that, “Pride is the beginning of sin.” Pride is a stiff-necked obsession with self, thinking higher of yourself, your looks, your abilities than you ought (Rom. 12:3). And pride is often highly religious and spiritual: “men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud… highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof…” (2 Tim. 3:2, 4-5).
This is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, when we remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as the greatest conquering King of all time, and precisely because He is the greatest, he came to defeat our greatest enemies: sin, death, and Satan, with pride at the heart of all of it. Our sermon text is after Palm Sunday, on the night of the Passover that week, but it summarizes the mission of Jesus well as He labors to teach His prideful disciples that He is establishing a Kingdom of Humble Servants, a Kingdom of Left-handed Power.
“And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest…” (Lk. 22:24-30)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Immediately after Jesus had warned that His betrayer was there at the table with them, the disciples began to quarrel about which of them would be the greatest (Lk. 22:21-24). Jesus says that this is how the rulers of the Gentiles talk and act, and this is not how His disciples are to think and act (Lk. 22:25-26). They are to understand greatness and power as arising from the one who considers himself younger and serves (Lk. 22:26). Jesus asks who is greater: the one who sits at the table or the one who serves, and He answers His own question by pointing out that He has served them all (Lk. 22:27).
Jesus affirms that the disciples have been His servants by continuing with Him in His trials, and He says that He is “covenanting” them a Kingdom, as the Father has “covenanted” to Him, a Kingdom where Jesus will continue serving them at His table, and by which they will be authorized and trained to rule well (Lk. 22:28-30). Following this, Jesus warns Simon that Satan is gunning for him, but Jesus has prayed for him to be restored after he falls (Lk. 22:31-34).
PAGAN POWER VS. COVENANT POWER
This text is bookended by pride: the pride of Judas and the pride of Peter, and in the middle, we have all the disciples quarreling because of their pride. Pride is what drives the kings and elites of the nations, like Nebuchadnezzar, vaunting their great power and wealth, ruling with threats of violence and flattery and bribes (Lk. 22:25). And Jesus says, “you shall not be so.” This is both a warning and a promise: they must not act this way, and this is because His kingdom does not work that way. Jesus says that the kingdom He is giving them, He is “covenanting” to them, as His Father, “covenanted” it to Him (Lk. 22:29). In other words, this Kingdom comes by the power of God’s Word, by the power of God’s promises, faith in those promises.
We see this all through the Bible: God occasionally works directly (e.g. the flood, a great plague, or military victory), but the story is more often filled with barren wives conceiving, sacrifices, and ordinary obedience and faith. This is the difference between what Luther called “right-handed power” and “left-handed power.” Right-handed power is direct, material intervention, whereas left-handed power is indirect and looks like weakness: the exaltation of Joseph, the Exodus, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The thing to underline is that while all that God does is powerful and miraculous, left-handed power highlights the power of God’s Word. It happens because God says so. Justification is the central doctrine in salvation that highlights this left-handed power, and this is why justification is the great Christian doctrine of humility.
THE PARABLE OF THE PHARISEE AND TAX COLLECTOR
Pride is so slick, so slippery. Pride can appear at our worst, but it often appears at our best. Pride shows up when we deny temptation or abstain from sin. If you pray, read your Bible, go to church, join the choir or a small group, pride is right there ready to pat you on the back. This is why Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector for those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (Lk. 18:9): The Pharisee is not a complete hypocrite: he is pious and godly inside and out and he’s even full of gratitude and gives God all the glory: “I think you, God…” (Lk. 18:11). And then a corrupt IRS agent waltzes in, maybe after a night of hard partying, and in a moment of utter sobriety, staring at the floor, with a hand on his chest says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Robert Capon says that one of the ways you can test whether you really get this parable is to imagine the tax collector coming back to church the following week without having made any amends. “Now then. I trust you see that on that on the basis of the parable as told, God will not mend his divine ways… He will do this week exactly what he did last: God, in short, will send him down to his house justified.” Does that make you gag? Or turn it around, what if the publican comes back with some slight improvements in his life: no prostitutes this week and less stealing: Capon again: “Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back for his second visit with the Pharisees’ speech in his pocket?” The glory of justification has nothing to do with our goodness or improvements, and it has everything to do with God’s sovereign grace. He declares sinners righteous for the sake of Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9, 1 Cor. 4:7). This is where all human pride goes to die; this is the beginning of true humility.
CONCLUSIONS & APPLICATIONS
This is why Jesus says that His power and greatness comes from being young and humble. It’s because when you “get low” you see God’s greatness and power. He says the word, and the universe comes into existence. He speaks the word and Christ is born, your sins are paid on His cross, and Jesus is risen from the dead. He says the Word and you go home scot-free, justified.
Jesus does not say that Kingdom greatness is doing whatever anyone demands of you; Jesus says that Kingdom greatness is serving at His table in obedience to His Father (Lk. 22:27-30). Kingdom humility and greatness submits to the Word of the King. Kingdom humility is kingdom greatness because God is the greatest, and His Word directs us in greatness. And Jesus embodies this greatness in His obedience to His Father, presented at that very table, with His body broken and His blood shed, to destroy all our pride and make us truly great.
So greatness and leadership in the Kingdom of God first comes by being served by Christ in this way. Acknowledge His greatness and sit down and eat and drink: survey that wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, “my richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” And then as you eat and drink the greatness of Christ (which was His great humiliation in your place), you are being equipped to rule like Christ, judging the tribes of Israel in your place in the Kingdom, in your family, at your place of work, in your service in the church.
And maybe the greatest thing is simply to forgive as you have been forgiven.