CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: 'But It Is Not So Among You'
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
- Mark 10:35-45
It is so easy--and tempting--to look at James and John in this story as overly ambitious. They overtly position themselves for seats of power and glory in this Kingdom Jesus keeps promising. Seriously? How bold can you be to say, “Teacher, we want you to do anything we ask you.” Any parent or teacher knows not to fall into the trap of that request! The natural response is to say, “No.” Indeed, the other disciples jumped in quickly to protest this move. But look at how Jesus responds: "Tell me what you want." Jesus leans in, seeking to know what is on their minds and hearts.
Now in the context of the story, this request seems a little tone-deaf to the news Jesus shared with his disciples. He just told them he is going to be handed over to the powers and authorities; he would be betrayed, humiliated and tortured to death; and then he would rise again. This is the third time he has shared this news with them. An appropriate response from the disciples would be to show some compassion and care for what Jesus is feeling as he faces the cross: "That sounds really painful, and lonely.’" They could have asked, "What can we do? If we cannot stop this, how can we be there for you? What do you need?" Instead, the disciples are thinking of themselves. Their eyes are fixed on the kingdom, as they imagine it, and their places within it. This is not the first time the disciples missed what Jesus was trying to tell them.
In the end, Jesus does not give them what they request; he cannot give that. He reads their intentions and says quite plainly, “You do not know what you are asking.” We hear echoes of this in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus says from the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they do.” While these disciples cannot yet drink the cup he is about to drink or be baptized into the experience that Jesus is preparing for, he knows they will understand better, later.
Perhaps we can and should have sympathy for these disciples.
They really don’t know what they are asking. How can they?
From the beginning, Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God. It has "come near." He used every image, stretched every metaphor to get them to see how different God’s Kingdom is from the kingdoms of this world. But the disciples only know this world. They have witnessed the ravages of war and famine, poverty and pestilence. They experienced division, oppression, cycles of violence and revenge played out on the world stage, with no end in sight. And then they see the rich and the powerful, the governors and officials, the rulers of the nations, the people who lord it over them. These rulers lie, cheat, manipulate, steal and even kill to gain power and to hold on to it. Power and glory are the measure of greatness in this world. Is it a surprise that James and John, whose nicknames were the "sons of thunder," would ask for this? And is our world any different?
When Jesus tells his disciples, “but it is not so among you…”, he draws the line for where they live. He does not put this as a question: "If you are my followers, you will act this way." He simply states it, as if it already is. It is a statement of faith. It shows Jesus’ faith, in his disciples, in his followers, in us, to be able to walk into this way of life and to live this way, no matter what the kingdoms of this world value.
The way Jesus shows us looks radically different from the kingdoms of the world. In the Kingdom of God, power is exercised in the service of love. Prosperity is measured by the hungry who are fed, the sick who are healed and the captives set free. Glory looks like the spirit rejoicing in forgiveness, in a heart that turns towards God, in reconciliation, resurrection and peace.
Jesus knows a very different kingdom than this world knows, and the only way he can bring others into it is to show them, in person, in the flesh, in word and deed. He does this through feeding the hungry, healing the sick, setting captives free, giving forgiveness and opening the door to resurrection and new life. He served the world in this way, and Jesus offers this service as the way to live in the Kingdom of God. This is the world God desires for all of us, not in some distant time and place, but here and now. We live in this kingdom when we walk in the way of love and serve one another as beloved children of God.
The Rev. Canon Earnest Graham is a canon for regional ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina.
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