In today’s Gospel, Jesus says “whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” To be a slave in the ancient world was to be completely powerless. The Romans lusted after power and glory. One of the major status symbols of the Roman world was the number of slaves a person owned. The more slaves, the more powerful. Of course, the slave’s life was not his own, it belonged to his/her master, as it were.
How fascinating it is that Jesus flips the idea of slavery upside down. To be great in the Kingdom of God means that our lives are not our own. We are slaves in the genuine sense that they come from God and ultimately belong to our Creator. So, to be first in the Kingdom of God requires us to recognize this truth and live it out.
Even though we might enjoy some measures of freedom in the political or economic sense, we are to use these capabilities in loving service to God and our fellow man. True freedom is not being able to do whatever you want, God forbid. The modern idea of freedom is unbridled insanity. From a Christian perspective, Freedom is the human being fully actual in Christ, unshackled to the disordered passions and concupiscience that drag us away from happiness.
Notice something else in today’s passage as well. The very nature of God, and our participation in the divine life, is decidedly non-competitive. The temporal world is full of anxiety and acquisitiveness. We tend to be ‘grabby’ about things. We want to hoard. We are concerned if someone else has something, there won’t be any for us. Jesus tries to quell these worries in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, and so forth).
Distinct from other gods and world religions, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the Triune God of Christianity - is not in competition with creatures. He is infinite being itself, ipsum esse as St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully points out. When we are drawn up into God and participate in the divine life by making ourselves cooperative receptacles of His grace, we too can enjoy the experience of non-competition. We can take on the role of slave, becoming servants like Christ, because we are filled with the goodness of God. We realize we do not need to be filled with worldly, finite things. We can eschew them and the zealous pursuit of honor and power. We need not cling to things but only hold fast to God.