Success at Any Cost

Tom Burke

July 2023
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Galatians 5:13 (New International Version, 2011 Edition)You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

Every human culture has embedded within it a standard, or standards, as to what constitutes a successful life. These may include academic excellence, athletic achievement, or having a presence on the internet. Whatever the standards of a particular society, it is important to recognize that these standards are cultural traditions, and like all traditions, they run deep. So deep that even the Christian may not take the time to consider whether or not they truly are worth becoming the focus of his or her life.     

We often hear men and women speaking of their desire to achieve “fame and fortune”. In truth, not all cultural measures of success include fortune (though many do). But in all cases, success is not success unless it is recognized by others.

This is vividly illustrated by the example of the Pharisees. In the Jewish religion, there was no higher achievement than to be one of the Pharisees. To be one of the Pharisees did not require being born into a particular tribe, but it did require an extreme level of religious devotion. To most Jews of the Gospel period there was no greater group of success stories.  Yet Jesus had another view of the Pharisees.

Matthew 23:1–7 (King James Version)Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:

All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries,1 and enlarge the borders of their garments,2

And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.3

Jesus clearly recognized that the behavior of these Pharisees did not truly indicate a devotion to God, but simply a desire to be known as ones who were devoted to God. Elsewhere in Matthew, he mentions some specifics.

Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18 (King James Version)Take heed that ye do not your alms [righteous deeds] before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;

That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. 

You will note that fasting, prayer, and righteous acts are not evil things. In fact, we are encouraged throughout the Scriptures to aspire to such activities. Their error lay not in the behavior, but in the motive. They desired to be seen of men. They wanted to be famous!  And therefore Jesus concluded, “They have their reward”.4

In truth, these Pharisees and other Judean hypocrites should not seem strange to us. They simply wore phylacteries and distinct tassels rather than tailored suits, scanty dresses, or football helmets. Just as they were the “stars” of First Century Judaism, we have our own set of stars”, and even “superstars”, whose fame is based either on good works or on blatantly evil works, but whose motivation is the same. And many aspire to be counted among them.5

Jesus suggested another way.

Luke 22:24–27 (New International Version, 2011 Edition)A dispute also arose among  them [Jesus’ disciples] as to which of them was considered to be greatest.

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.

But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.

For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

How radically different from the standards of his day, or any day!6 

Jesus not only taught this standard, he lived it, most notably when he laid down his life for enemies of God, on the cross. Shortly before the crucifixion, he demonstrated it in another way — by washing the feet of his disciples.7 Having done so, he then shared with them a precious truth.

John 13:12–17 (King James Version)So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?

Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.

If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.

For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.

If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.

Did you catch that last part? Jesus says that selfless service will make us happy.

No!”, the carnal mind says, “That can’t be true!” Yet Jesus both taught and lived that standard.  Do you suppose that he was, and is still, happy about it?  Other paths may offer me the possibility (no matter how slight) of being seen of men. Jesus’ method brings happiness. To all who follow it.

In recent years, this writer has noticed another, newer, standard for success which has gained great popularity. We call it the bucket list. In brief, we are told that happiness will come from making a list of things that I desire to experience some day, and cramming as many of them as possible into this short life. For those who have even partially fulfilled their list, I think you will agree that, in the long run, not much has changed.

Jesus had one item on his bucket list: to obey God. He had the ability to do anything.  He chose to serve. He lived at a time when Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia could be visited with relative ease, compared with previous times. Yet he never climbed the Alps.  He never saw the pyramids. He never even left the boundaries of an area about the size of our modern-day Maryland. Do you imagine that he regrets it?

Long before Jesus’ day, the writer of Ecclesiastes set out to experience everything that life had to offer. All of that time and effort resulted in a startling recognition: “All is vanity”. His quest ended with a simple conclusion.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 (New International Version, 2011 Edition)Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

Fellow Christian, if we should choose to take this wonderful liberty that has been granted to us and to live it out in loving service to others, we may not have the time to experience all that the world offers, or even all of the good things that we’d like to experience.  But there is one experience which we will certainly share in.

Just as the servants of Jesus’ parable were rewarded for successfully stewarding the wealth he had entrusted to them,8 one day our success will be evaluated.  A success measured by heaven’s standards.  And those who succeed will receive a reward, in his presence, from his hand.

[1] Phylacteries were small, boxlike containers in which were enclosed portions of Scripture. They were worn sometimes on the arm and more often on the forehead, to symbolize that the wearer was one who meditated in the Word of God.

[2] The borders referred to here were tassels worn to indicate one’s holiness. Special colors were reserved for the Pharisees, but others wore them as well. Many believe that this was the reason for the woman with the issue of blood touching the hem (tassels) of Jesus’ garment.  (See Luke 8:43,44)

[3] Or, “Teacher!”

[4] It is interesting to note that the Apostle Paul had been a Pharisee, and, in his own words, “a Hebrew of the Hebrews”. And yet, upon encountering Christ, he declared this and all of his former achievements to be “but dung” in comparison.  (See Philippians 3:4–14)

[5] This is not to suggest that all fame is rooted in evil. But certainly a large majority of “superstars” testify unashamedly regarding the ruthless desire for fame by which they achieved their positions.

[6] This is only one example of the many ways in which Jesus’ standards totally baffled those who were steeped in the things of the world. The reader might find it enlightening to read and ponder the conversation between Jesus and his disciples after a woman poured out an entire container of precious ointment simply to bless him.  (See Matthew 26:6–13)

[7] See John 13:1–11

[8] See Luke 19:12–24