Friedrich Nietzsche is probably best known for his philosophical and sociological shibboleth, “God is dead and we killed him.” But to me, the more interesting, and more practical insight into our human reality is his proposition about our will to power. That is to say, man’s primary drive is to dominate the world around him, to have power over other people, the natural world (“subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing,”), and even himself. If this is in fact true, I think most parents will tell you that that drive first becomes quite pronounced at around the age of two. It is a compelling theory, but one that has been challenged by other great thinkers, such as Sigmund Freud, who believed that the pleasure principle was the driving force in man, or Viktor Frankl, who taught that the search for meaning was man’s greatest motivator. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can see strong strains of all three drives in our own personalities.
In our gospel pericope today, we see the disciples exhibiting the very thing that Nietzsche was talking about. They were arguing amongst themselves as to which one of them was the greatest. This dimension in the personalities of the earliest disciples of Jesus is instructive, if not a little consoling to us. It’s comforting to know that even they squabbled among themselves and jockeyed for position. From sibling rivalries, to academic class rankings, to sports competitions, to what level of an organization one works in, so much of our lives gets defined by where we rate in comparison to others. There is something within us that wants to be on top, wants to be the best, wants to be in charge, or what have you. While this may drive us at times to pursue excellence, which is a good thing, it can also have the effect of making us bossy, or stubborn, or domineering, or childish.
There is a beautiful prayer that the priest says during Mass when he pours a droplet of water into the chalice of wine. The prayer goes, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” As Christians, we believe that just because something is a common trait among human beings that does not mean we shouldn’t work hard to overcome it, to rise above it. We know that humanity, left to its own basest instincts, is doomed to repeat itself, or put another way, is bound for failure. Christ came to pull us out of that rut, to divinize our humanity.
And so Jesus gives us a divine challenge in the gospel today . . .”If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last, and the servant of all.” Wow, that militates against my will to power. Last + servant = first. Hmm? It seems that much of my life I have tried the following formula: I want what I want when I want it + you must do what I say = happiness. Of course, the trouble is that that formula never works out. Jesus admonishes his disciples, and us, today, to invert our primitive drives, to think of ourselves last, and to be the servant of all.
It may not be our primary drive to do so, but it is our calling as Christians. Indeed, when asked by these very same disciples how to pray, Jesus instructed them to pray to their heavenly Father that “Thy will be done.”
Father James A. Hamel is a Catholic priest who is a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently an instructor at the Air Force Chaplain Corps College at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.