I was watching again the first of The Lord of the Rings movies recently (notable because I almost never watch the same movie twice), and I was struck by how Gandalf was both drawn to and terrified by the ring. When Bilbo leaves it behind, does Gandalf want to take it up and wear it and even use it “for good” as he says later to Frodo? Absolutely! The ring is such that any being would want it. Yet, Gandalf will never touch the ring. He knows, no matter how good his intentions, the ring will corrupt him and, therefore, destroy him.
I see the same thing happening in this passage. Not in Jesus. He has it figured out. But like Gandalf was teaching Frodo to fear the corrupting power of the ring, I see Jesus teaching his disciples that power can easily corrupt.
I see an earthly king, Herod the tetrarch, scared that he might lose his power to this new man everyone is talking about. I see people who flock to Jesus for whatever his power can give them, whether healing, wholeness or food. Who could blame them? I see disciples given power to heal and exorcise, who are excited to tell Jesus what they have done (9:10, 36) but who want to press pause on ministry to tell glory-stories about themselves (9:12). I see Peter marveling at the power and glory of Jesus on the Transfiguration and glad that he gets to be there to see it (9:33), as if the marvelous sight was the point itself. And at the lowest point in the whole chapter, I see disciples arguing over which of them is the greatest, as if the point of the power they have been given in this chapter was for their own glory (9:46). Then they are ready to use that power to call down destruction of people who reject Jesus (9:54). They have drunk the heady draught of power and have become intoxicated.
In the midst of all of this is a teacher who forbids his followers to tell others what they have seen and learned (9:21), who tells them he is getting ready to die, not revolt against Rome (9:22, 44). Here we have a Master who practically tries to dissuade people who want to follow him, saying the cost is very high (9:57-62). And also in this chapter are these famous reminders that the way of Christ is about sacrifice, self-denial, and service not power and glory:
“If any of you want to come after me,” he said, “you must say no to yourselves, and pick up your cross every day, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me, you’ll save it. What good will it do you if you win the entire world, but lose or forfeit your own self?” (9:23-25)
“Whoever is the least among you — that’s the one who is great.” (9:48b)
Power only ever belongs in the hands of those who can carry it for a while, for the benefit of others not themselves, and who honestly see the “cross” they carry for what it is: an instrument of possible destruction and a vehicle of potential grace. We dare not take up the cross of ministry, with the power and glory it can bring, lightly.