The Greatest Man in the World
A meditation on Matthew 20:25-28
The artist Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania, but his career took him across the Atlantic, where he became the official painter for the court of King George III. It is said that in 1783 King George asked Mr. West what his fellow American George Washington would do, now that the colonists had just won their independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.” King George marveled at this. “If he does that,” said the monarch, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Just so. For this is precisely what Washington did. He could have made himself the King of the Colonies or some such thing. Instead, he retreated to Mount Vernon and let the new nation take shape as a republic. Five years later, when the confederation of states was being reorganized as the United States of America, Washington consented to serve as President when elected by unanimous consent. But even then he refused to serve more than two terms, though he might have been reelected forever. His precedent would stand until the time of Franklin Roosevelt.
What made Washington-- in the words of his mortal enemy!— “the greatest man in the world”? He walked away from power. Privilege, prestige, supremacy could all have been his. He opted out, purely by reason of his own conscience and moral fiber.
Why? He had no “lust for power.” Like all the founding fathers, Washington believed that power itself has a corrupting influence on the human soul, even when exercised with the best intentions. They decided, therefore, to spread power around widely, in order to minimize its corrupting influence on any person. For this reason the founders established America as a republic rather than a democracy. (In a democracy all power shifts to the omnipotent majority—50% plus one vote— whereas in a republic the law limits the powers of the majority and protects minority interests (in theory … and please, please, do not read into these remarks an endorsement of any current political party: you will get none from me!)
Power corrupts. That’s the lesson the Washington taught all Americans when he walked away from a crown. George Washington was not a saint, but even so we should hold him up as a model to follow. In the Orthodox Lenten prayer of Saint Ephraim, we are taught to pray that God take from us the spirit of “sloth, despair, lust for power, and idle talk.” This is an interesting list of prayer requests, and we could meditate on the meaning of each item.
Lust for power has been a theme of several epic films: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. Each of those stories in its own way reflects the idea of power’s corrupting influence. The Precious harms the very ones who prize it most—along with those around them.
We may not be the head of a Galactic Empire or the Lord of Middle-Earth, but we all in our own way have a temptation to seek power. Spouses have a power over each other, parents over children, children over parents, bosses over employees, alpha females over the other girls at school, the head jock over the guys, and on it goes. So much of reality TV nowadays is precisely an exhibition of the lust for power, the urge to make others do our bidding, even when it is contrary to their own best interests.
In this Lenten season, I ask you to consider the power you wield in your relationships, as well as the power you don’t have but long for. “All men would be Tyrants if they could,” wrote John Adams. He did not mean that we all want to take over the world; rather, he meant that inside each of us is the tendency to value our own ideas as superior—more reasonable, more practical, more principled. We presume that with power, we could do everyone else a favor. We all have some realm in which we might aspire to dominate, whether it be in the government, the workplace, the boardroom, the clubhouse, or the home.
How can this desire be tamed? First, we must remember that lust for power is not so much the disease as a symptom. The underlying spiritual illness is fear, and above all, fear of death. It is fear that drives us to dominate our neighbor, to ensure that, in a world where all are dying, we ourselves might survive just a little longer than the rest. The antidote for this fear is the faith of the Resurrection. Christ led the way through which we too may go, the way of death leading to eternal life.
Second, the wise person will consider that in the long run, the one who serves often turns out to be the one who leaves the lasting influence. “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” Why? Indescribable is the imprint of a mother’s selfless love. There is a reason that Mother’s Day far outstrips Father’s Day in terms of gifts given, cards sent, and phone calls made. Mothers more than fathers are seen by children as tireless caregivers. (We can question the truth of this perception, but not the prevalence!) Those who serve us come in time to have a hold on our hearts like no others.
It is the slow, quiet, humble path of servanthood that wins souls and minds, not by force, but by affection and imitation. Jesus Christ said as much in Matthew 20:25-28: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” And so He washed their feet, and thus forever cleansed their hearts of the lust for power.
Do you want to be “the greatest person in the world”? (Or at least, in your own personal world?) Cast away fear. Walk away from power as much as you can. And serve God and man with all your being.
Kali Sarakosti! A Blessed Lent to all!
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