If I were going to put a title on today’s gospel reading it would be “You Can’t Always Get What You Want, And That’s a Good Thing.” In order to understand the sheer audacity of James’ and John’s request, we have to go back a few chapters in Mark, and look at the events which led up to it.
In Chapter 8, Peter boldly declared that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Christ.” Jesus’ responded by telling Peter that the Son of Man, is going to undergo great suffering, be killed, and in three days rise again. Peter was so upset by what Jesus said that he rebuked him. Jesus then called Peter “Satan” because Peter was standing in the way of the path Jesus was destined to walk.
In chapter 9, Jesus makes the same prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. Mark tells us that the disciples “Did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Immediately after this they got into an argument about which one of them was the greatest disciple. Jesus’ response to this ridiculous argument is not surprising to us: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” As if to say, “Aren’t you paying attention to me? I’ve told you twice I’m going to suffer and die, and all you can do is argue about which one of you is the greatest.”
At the beginning of chapter 10, the disciples rebuked parents who brought their children to be blessed by Jesus. The implication being that children are not worthy of Jesus’ time. His response to them is a familiar one: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
After teaching about the need to share our wealth with our neighbors in need, Jesus predicts his suffering, death and resurrection a third time. Immediately after this, James and John make their audacious request, which is our gospel reading for today:
“Hey, Jesus, can you do us a favor? We want positions of power in the coming Kingdom you’re talking about. One of us can be your right hand man, and the other can govern from the left. We want to be your Vice President and your Speaker of the House. We know we’re your favorite disciples, so why not be honest about it. We’re ready and willing to serve.”
You’ve got to be kidding me! James and John should be thankful that I’m not Jesus, because I would have smacked both of them upside the head. Jesus is trying to prepare them for what lies ahead, and they aren’t getting it. He is trying to tell them that his reign is not about power in the way they understand it. He’s not a military Messiah. He’s the Suffering Servant. He even drops hints that those who are usually excluded from positions of power, such as children and the poor, are going to be honored citizens in his kingdom.
Yet, after saying all of this, after healing outcast lepers, feeding the multitudes, and smashing cultural barriers, all the disciples can manage to do is argue about power. Lord, have mercy on them. And Lord have mercy on us, because we are often guilty of doing the same thing.
At this point in our nation’s history, certain segments of Christianity are far too cozy with power in Washington DC. They act as if they seamlessly fit together, as if church and state should always walk hand in hand, when nothing could be further from the truth. Every prophet in the Old Testament rebuked their nation when people prospered at the expense of the poor and marginalized. They may have thought God was blessing them, but the prophets reminded them that God does not bless some people at the expense of others. Whatever wealth and prosperity we possess, is a gift form God. It’s meant to be shared with the poor and needy. The prophet Micah articulated this perfectly, “What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8]
Jesus echoed the prophetic tradition in the way interacted with others and spoke of what God’s kingdom looked like. He used lots of reversals like those in our gospel lesson: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
When describing what the reign of God looks like, Jesus reminded his dim-witted disciples “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” [Mt 20:16]
Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul came to the conclusion that God chooses those who are foolish to confound the wise, [Rom 1:22, 1 Cor 1:26-29, 3:18-19] and when we are weak, then we are strong. [1 Cor 1:27; 2 Cor 12:10]
Because of this united witness in both the Old and New Testaments, we, as followers of Christ, should get a little nervous, when we’re linked arm in arm with the secular ruling powers of our day. We should get a little nervous when we begin draping the flag around Jesus, because these two kingdoms are often diametrically opposed to one another. I know me saying that may be offensive to some people, but it is the truth of the Biblical witness, whether we like to hear it or not.
We see this same truth being played out in our gospel lesson. James and John are looking for positions of power. Jesus is reminding them that if any want to be his disciples they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. He also tells them that if they wish to be great they must be servants. If they wish to be first, they must be slaves of all.
The first story in Chapter 11 of Mark’s gospel is the Palm Sunday story where Jesus descends the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem. It is there that he clashes with the ruling powers of both church and state, who would arrest him, torture him, and place him on a cross. They said “no,” to the kingdom Jesus was building. They said “no” to everyone being included, the poor being taken care of, and justice for the voiceless.
But we know the rest of the story. They said “no,”…but God said “YES.” After the ruling powers of church and state thought they had squashed this rebel king forever, Jesus rose from the dead three days later. Christ’s kingdom took on a new form. It is one that we are called to embody as citizens of this kingdom. Our ambition is not to jostle for positions of power at Jesus’ right and left hand. We are the servant community of Christ, and we must never forget this. We must never compromise the values we hold dear as followers of Jesus. Hopefully, we won’t have to be reminded as many times as Jesus’ first disciples what the reign of God looks like. Hopefully, we will remember the call, to do, justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love ALL of our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
Friends in Christ, it is critical that we hold fast to what we know is true in these uncertain times. The values Jesus taught us are non-negotiable. Let us renew our vows to be the humble servants, community builders, peacemakers, and justice-advocates Christ has called us to be in this broken and and often hostile world. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 David Eck.