Last Place Winners: How one Shocking Scene in the Bible Reverses our View of Power

The Joy of Service

Little kids love to help other kids—except for their siblings sometimes. But overall, children tend to click in small groups. Play is inventive. Imaginations soar.

I remember about a year ago when two of our neighbor's kids came over to hang with our eight-year-old son. One of them, a boy about four years younger, followed Braden everywhere around the house.

Braden would tap his shoulder to play, help him find toys, and guide him around the house. Braden would pat the boy's head, mirroring an adult affectionately patting a young child.

I have loved watching my son develop into such a caring boy. Yes, he has his moments (like all humans), but his heart is a servant's heart.

In children we witness a joy in helping others. Serving others is a natural byproduct of play and connection among them.

Leadership of the World

Now, contrast the innocence and loving condition of childhood with our culture's treatment of others.

Do our workplaces, friend circles, and social media feeds reflect childhood's natural tendency towards serving with joy?

Though I work alongside other adults, gossiping and cliques (the hallmarks of adolescent school days) still exist. Though I try to help others and sacrifice for them, I still feel I'm on the outside looking in sometimes.

And to be honest, though I want to serve others, I have found my desires for "success" have made it hard for me to celebrate others successes. (Ouch—that hurts to think about that one!)

We all in some ways, desire power in our spheres of life. To be first place. Honored. Set at the head of the table.

Jesus, however, has completely different advice about power and position.

Leadership Defined by the King

In the Gospels, there's this powerful scene where the mother of two disciples requests her sons to reign alongside Jesus in the Kingdom. She asks, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left" (Matthew 20:21).

The other disciples, only an earshot from the scene, feel "indignant" at this request. Though the Gospels do not note any inner-dialogue, I can imagine them simmering, How could they suggest this? They're no better than us!

If they had spat out their complaints, we'd totally support their anger. We'd see them sticking up for their rights and position as only natural.

But Jesus rallies the moment and answers all the disciples.

And us…

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matthew 20:25-28)


The answers of Jesus never placate natural human tendencies, nor do they favor one person over another.

Surely the other disciples had expected Jesus to rebuke the two who wanted position, but His answer cut to the heart of the issue: Position and power come naturally to the world, but selfless service and sacrifice would mark His followers.

The Upside Down Leader

Servant leadership is a buzz phrase thrown around on LinkedIn, within professional circles, and from organizations. I think it's awesome some leaders in the business world take the idea of serving their employees (or constituents in politics) as a driving purpose behind their work.

Though "servant leadership" is commendable, we have to keep in mind it's still wrapped within a business and profit-driven framework. Let's be honest. Does sacrifice for others define most for-profit corporations? Does it reflect the natural tendencies of Wall Street?

Thankfully, Jesus sets the record and the tone for us. He doesn't "lord" the command over us by telling us to boss others around. There's no sense of self-elevation or promotion.

As well, there's no "Well, if you do serve others, then you will gain much in return." In fact, Jesus does not guarantee success, prestige, or riches for sacrificing oneself. He simply states, "whoever wants to be first must be your slave."

Jesus flips over the baskets of power and position, dumps their ego-ridden contents, and says, "Nuh-uh. You want to be first? Be their slave."

This forces us to face several realities…

  • Our view of leadership, position, and power must pass through Jesus's teaching first, not our culture's biases and paradigms.

  • How we treat others must be shaped by the heart of our King who "gave his life as a ransom" for the world. He purchased our freedom by giving up His own.

  • Our high positions can never exceed the stature of the cross. Though the perfect Son of God giving up His life may seem foolish to many, it is instead "the wisdom of God."

Costly Greatness

Everyone wants to be the G.O.A.T. at whatever they do.

When I first started teaching, I thought I'd win every student over, change all of their lives, and still leave school on time. I had visions of grandeur, but they were not rooted in the greatness Jesus had in mind. I had wanted to serve my vision of success, which honestly was self-centered—not servant-centered.

Position and power come naturally to the world, but selfless service and sacrifice will mark His followers.

Jesus's teaching challenges me because His call to greatness is costly. It means giving up my priorities for His and for others. It means lowliness and service mark a heart after the King's greatness.

The world is shouting, "Elevate yourself! Build your platform! Make your mark! Win at all costs..."

The call of the Messiah responds, "There's freedom in living and loving like Me. Pour yourself out. Drink from Me, for I am the water of life. Be last place winners."

This article was updated on March 6, 2021

Jordan Hopkins

Jordan is a freelance content writer and educator. He is passionate about serving others and amplifying their narratives through quality writing. You can find him hanging with his family, fishing, playing guitar, and grinding the best beans for his morning coffee.