(Adapted from Martin Luther King’s The Drum Major Instinct)
The Drum Major Instinct
February 4, 1968
Ebenezer Baptist Church,
The Scriptures according to the Gospel of St. Mark, chapter 10, verses 35 to 45, tell a rather interesting tale of a request made by two of Jesus’ disciples. Let’s recall what that request was.
New International Version
The Request of James and John
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 ”What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 ”You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 ”We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Now, as we reflect on the word of the Lord as was just conveyed by the Gospel of Mark, we could easily realize that a rather strange or unusual request was made by two of Jesus’ disciples. Here we have James and John, the sons of Zebedee, requesting that Jesus install one of them to sit at His right and the other to sit at His left hand in glory.
Now, for disciples to request such a thing of the Master, is rather bold. But they did nonetheless. As they made their request of Christ, Jesus calmly responded to them. He told them very cordially that His right and left was not His to give, but rather was a place for whom it is prepared; while simultaneously, questioning them on whether they were aware of the request that they were making.
As Jesus responded, the other disciples were annoyed and even got angry at James and John. And we could only surmise that they thought among themselves, how dare somebody make such a request of the Master. The other disciples (I believe) were quick to condemn James and John for their selfish and haughty request. Perhaps we too, as we read the story, would join in condemning James and John for having made such a request.
But before we become quick to condemn James and John for their request, let us take a minute and look calmly and reflectively at our own selves. Oftentimes, we exhibit selfish ways and tendencies, much like James and John. Yes, ever since we were born, we craved attention. We grew up on praise and reward. You do something good, you get praised for it— you get a reward. And when you feel like you are doing a good job in any aspect of life, yes, we make demands in exchange for our deeds.
It’s the innate human nature that we are all born with. It’s a desire to be out front, a desire to be noticed, to be praised, to take charge. It’s a tendency to stand out— to lead the parade. It is a sort of instinct that is driven by ego and it drives us all.
Truly, it’s not a bad instinct. Everybody loves praise, wants to be recognized, appreciated, stand out and take charge. So it’s a good instinct, but only when properly harnessed.
You see, the thing is, more often than not, we have perverted this instinct. We have used our egos to drive us to the top, to allow us to stand out and be number one. And in so doing, we have totally perverted our positions and trampled on others below. Yes! The perversion of this instinct is apparent every day in our daily lives. It’s present in our workplaces, our schools, businesses, society, and even among our leaders.
We are engaged in this colossal race against each other to prove who is better than the other. We fight ardently to out-do one another and outshine our neighbors. We are on a dangerous quest to ascertain who can amass the most wealth and who can throw the best parties with the most uppity guests, and the like. We compete among each other in the workplaces just for the right to knock our chest and say, “I am first”. Every opportunity we get to bring down one another or bring someone into disrepute, we seize the opportunity because, somehow, it makes us feel that by doing that, our lights will shine a little brighter.
We, much like James and John, have made very selfish requests and have pursued those requests for selfish gains. We have waged war against our very own, trampling them so we can be made to look better. We have held others down and kept others back so as to propel ourselves forward. When the music plays, we no longer aspire to hold our corner and dance on our tile, but instead, we want to be up front, leading the charge. We dubiously conspire in our workplaces to paint a dark portrait of others just so we can appear to shine. Oh, how terribly we have perverted the instinct to lead and serve.
We witness it even more in our political sphere. We hear the insults hurled across the House floor echoing inside the chambers. We witness the name calling, and the finger-pointing so as to portray one as being more corrupt than the other; we see the expensive SUVs and the elaborate homes of our leaders, and the way they look down with scorn on the masses. They cling to their security and socialize in their elite class and compete among each other, leaving the poor and needy in abeyance with their haughtiness, with very little service to those who need it most.
But as I said earlier, this can be a good instinct, if properly harnessed and adequately nurtured. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in wanting to be great. It would be amazing if every person aspired to be great and achieved greatness. But the greatest thing that I am referring to is the ability to serve others above and before yourself.
Imagine a Belize, a world, where we all strive to serve one another in love and harmony, where we are all great because we are engaged in a competition of service — to see who can serve each other more, doubling down on our own greatness through humanity, kindness and love.
As the passage I quoted came to a close, Jesus didn’t scold James and John for the request that they made of him. But instead, he did something amazing. He turned their request into something positive. He told them that whosoever wants to be great, must be a servant. He went on further to caution them that whoever wants to be first must serve.
And Jesus ended in a salient manner by reminding them that even he Himself did not come to be served, but instead to serve others and ultimately, give His life as a ransom that all of us may occupy a land where we can aspire to be better, do better and live better.
Therefore, let us strive to properly harness this instinct and serve one another. Let us put aside our perverted instincts and lead a life of service. Let us all be great simply by serving one another. Let’s us serve our neighbors best. Let us bring greatness to our workplaces by looking out for one another and making sacrifices of service for each other so that all of us can be great. Let us endeavor to change our culture of fighting amongst each other and trying to outdo one another, for our lights do not shine brighter when we blow out someone else’s light.
Let us all be great. Because greatness is very simple, you see. You don’t need a Master’s degree or a Philosophical degree to be great. You don’t need to graduate at the top of your class or be enlisted on the honor roll to be great. You don’t need to have your subject and verbs agree to be great. You don’t need to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to be great. You don’t need money or riches or fame to be great.
See, greatness is very simple. In order to be great, you need only a heart full of love and a soul that generates grace, to be great. In other words, greatness comes through service: serving one another above yourself.
Go out and be great; SERVE!
God Bless Belize.