Zebedee’s children James and John approached Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to grant our request.” “What is it?” Jesus asked. They replied, “See to it that we sit next to you, one at your right and one at your left, when you come into your glory.”
Jesus told them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I will drink or be baptized in the same baptism as I?” “We can,” they replied. Jesus said in response, “From the cup I drink of, you will drink; the baptism I am immersed in, you will share. But as for sitting at my right or my left, that is not mine to give; it is for those to whom it has been reserved.” The other ten, on hearing this, became indignant at James and John.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know how among the Gentiles those who exercise authority are domineering and arrogant; those ‘great ones’ know how to make their own importance felt. But it can’t be like that with you. Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Promised One has come not to be served, but to serve – to give one life in ransom for the many.”
~ Mark 10:35-45
The easy lesson to draw from this sacred text is be careful for what you wish for. James and John have no idea what Jesus means by the cup he will drink and the baptism with which he will be baptized. All they know is that they want to have places of honor and are sure they are up for whatever it takes to get there. Would they have been so eager had they known Jesus was talking about drinking a cup of suffering and being baptized into the cross?
The larger message of this passage however is more profound and comes in the verses that follow as Jesus continues to explore and expound upon the nature of the kin-dom of God’s he teaches. In this place power is demonstrated through service, greatness is shown in vulnerability, and achievement comes through compassion.
Let's briefly set up the story: Jesus has announced for the third time his intention to carry his mission to Jerusalem and anticipated that this will culminate in his death. As with the previous two announcements, it is followed by the disciples' failure to understand, not just his words but his very mission and character. The first time, Jesus disclosure comes immediately after Peter confesses him to be God's messiah. But Jesus redefines what it means to be the messiah proves too much for Peter, who immediately rebukes him. Peter imagines that redemption will be achieved by strength, not by the apparent and appalling weakness, humiliation and brutality of dying on a cross.
The second time Jesus discloses his mission and destiny the disciples are soon debating who will be the greatest. In turn, Jesus scoops up a child into his arms and tells them that greatness rests not in phenomenal deeds but in receiving and welcoming one such as this vulnerable child.
This third and last disclosure is followed by what can only seem a self-serving move on the part of James and John. Apart from the rest of the disciples, they approach Jesus and ask whether, once Jesus has come into his glory, they may occupy positions of prestige in his kin-dom. Two things strike me about this scene. First, I'm utterly astonished at their denseness. I mean, where have they been? Jesus keeps talking about suffering and death and for some reason they can't seem to get that through their heads. Their talk of glory immediately after Jesus anticipation of the cross is nearly impossible to explain as anything other than denial. Perhaps drunk on earlier successes, they can imagine no other outcome than triumph and glory.
My second reaction is more charitable. It is to recognize that I often fall into the same trap that they do. In a time of crisis, when Jesus has just announced that he is going to his death, they react with the intuitive move to self-protection. Notice … not only do they ask for seats of glory, but they do it apart from their companions, as if they believe there won't be enough glory to go around and so they'd better get theirs first. No wonder the other disciples are angry; they see that James and John are trying to edge them out.
And are we any different? When we feel under attack, or afraid, or anxious … isn't the temptation to move toward self-preservation, give into our fears about scarcity, and see our companions as rivals rather than friends? And of course it doesn't work … truth is … it never does. But what's the alternative?
That's what Jesus articulates. As in the two previous scenes around these issues, Jesus invites them not just to re-imagine but actually to redefine their understanding of power, prestige, status, and leadership. In this case he defines leadership as serving the needs of another. Which means that glory comes not from individual accomplishment but from service.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Then why is it so hard? Two reasons. First, given the witness of both scripture and our experience, I think it's safe to say that as a people we are just insecure enough to believe that there is not enough to go around … not enough money, not enough work, not enough time, not enough love, … you name it … and so we seem hardwired to look out for ourselves rather than our neighbor.
Second, we are bombarded 24/7 with cultural messages that play upon this insecurity by asserting that glory rests in possessions, or wealth, or fame, or individual accomplishment. Why else would we pay professional athletes and movies stars millions upon millions while school teachers and nurses receive such modest wages? Although we pay lip service to serving others, the fact of the matter is we have an entire culture encouraging us to … look out for number 1. Our elected leaders are suggesting and encouraging us to reduce … or worse eliminate … assistance programs and resources that help people. Healthcare has become not a right but a privilege for those who can afford it. All this to boost the financial gain of the rich, using privilege as power, giving more and more control to the elite rather than using resources to bring blessing to those in need.
Can you imagine … just for a minute … what the world would be like if our leaders behaved in the manner or even more like Jesus teaches … vying with each other to see who could best serve the needs of the vulnerable, holding debates about the best way of coming in last so that others could come in first? This reality seems absurd.
Well … let’s make it a little easier … and harder. What if we lived like this … measuring our achievements not in terms of dollars or possessions or power or privilege but in terms of lives touched, or assessing our net worth not in terms of bank accounts but in terms of acts of compassion? What would life be like if we saw ALL people as good and defined as being the Beloved of God? What would it be like if instead of defining people by the color of their skin, or their gender, or their self-identified sexuality, or by their race, or by their genitalia … we … as people of faith … instead affirm and embrace people for who they are, by their behavior and actions … by their personhood … instead of our assumptions, bias and bigotry of who they are or might be. What would the world be like if we took personal responsibility for our thoughts and actions … instead of shaming and blaming others and making excuses for our personal realities … and instead do our best to see the Holy One in others while also asking the Divine for spiritual or personal healing of our individual realities of pain and brokenness? This would indeed be the glory of kin-dom living.
I believe all of us have also had moments where we've experienced the truth of Jesus’ words. We have had moments where we’ve put someone else's needs first … not because we wanted to please them or wanted something in return, but from the sheer delight of serving. Each of us has volunteered, or helped out a friend, or encouraged someone down in the dumps, or lent a hand to someone in need, and when we did … we experienced the joy of giving ourselves to another. Each of us has fought our insecurity about not having enough by making ourselves vulnerable to the needs of another and found that vulnerability rewarded not simply by the gratitude of the recipient but by our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, and courage.
So, this week I invite you to take a few moments for reflection and comparison of the world's understanding of glory and the one Jesus advocates. But don't stop there … remember times when you have given of yourself for the sake of another and received back so much more than you've given. Bring to mind thoughts and realities when you’ve been of service. My hunch is this will lead you to a greater understanding of the truth of greatness and God’s glory.
And then, suddenly this sacred text … far from being absurd, … is incredibly accessible, because all of us can serve another. From young to old, powerful to vulnerable, rich to poor, educated or not … anyone can act with kindness, put others first, and try to exercise compassion to those around us. So maybe we don’t need our leaders to set the example in order to change the world. Maybe this is something we can … and should … do in our homes, places of work and volunteering, in our neighborhoods and communities and as we do … watch as the kin-dom of God becomes a reality all around us!