The very last sermon that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached was delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968. King entitled the message “The Drum Major Instinct,” basing it on Mark 10:35-45 (the same text we looked at this past weekend). He said that the request of James and John to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in the kingdom reflected a “drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade.”
Throughout the message, he suggested that ambition alone is not a bad thing. The real question centers around what kind of parade one wants to lead. He encourages disciples of Jesus to lead in the parade of servanthood and love, not for selfish motives of glory and fame. Near the end of his sermon, he imagines his own funeral and what people might say about him when he is gone (an eerie foreshadowing of his death exactly two months later on April 4, 1968). Here is an excerpt of the closing of that message:
And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. . . Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say. . .
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.
Maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the request of the Zebedee brothers. Maybe what they really needed was just a little redirection and a good ole’ motivation/heart check. Maybe they just got sucked up in the gravitational pull of power and influence and found themselves at the head of the wrong parade. Thankfully, we have the example of Jesus (and others like Dr. King) to remind us of our true calling – that of authentic servanthood, humility, and love.