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|"A Special Request"
I recall that, as a small child, whenever
special treats were available in the form of cake or pie or cookies or
candy, there was often an element of greed involved in wanting to get
the biggest possible piece. Somehow, bigger was always
Now that I'm older, I'm not as greedy as I once was for those heavy-calorie items; although I am suspicious that greed has crept into other areas of my life.
As a child I was taught that playthings were always to be shared; and with three brothers, clothes were automatically shared. Undesirable things like cleaning the house and washing the dishes were gladly shared.
But over the years I've learned that reining in greed and sharing are some of the toughest things for folks to do. Self- centeredness has, in fact, been elevated to a virtue by some. Robert Ringer wrote a book entitled, "Looking Out for Number One." Wayne Dyer wrote one called "Pulling Your Own Strings." And on a more objective, and somewhat academic level, Christopher Lasch wrote a study entitled "The Cult of Narcissism."
Some folks have argued that in the 1980's and 1990's we were moving through the "me generation."
But this isn't just a contemporary phenomenon. It's been with us a long time. And we even have evidence in scripture.
You would think that Jesus’ disciples would have gone beyond this sort of thing, but it is apparent in the tenth chapter of the gospel according to Mark that they haven't.
In the thirty-fifth verse we read, "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."
Now I would never have gone to my father with a request like that. That would have been a sure-fire way to not get it. But we immediately get the feeling that James and John are going to be asking for some really big favor.
And they want to get a commitment out of Jesus before they specify what the favor is. Well, Jesus is more accommodating than anyone ought to be.
"He said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?"
Now, if anyone was capable of granting almost any request, it was Jesus. After all, didn't he regularly work miracles? Healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, even raising the dead? Maybe he didn't really believe they'd be asking for much out of the ordinary. On the other hand, maybe he figured that whatever they did ask for, he could provide. But we still have to wonder. Aren't these the disciples who have already made great sacrifices just to follow Jesus?
Aren't these the disciples who have learned to live simply, who have been instructed by Jesus that they can indeed do without much in the way of worldly possessions?
Really, the stage is set for a very simple, undemanding, uncomplicated request. But that's not what Jesus is going to get. Instead, he's going to get hit with the most demanding request in the history of the world. This is the request beyond which one cannot ask for more. And it is amazing that these two disciples even considered making it! But there it was, anyway.
"They said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."
Now, what could have prompted that request? We really have no clues in scripture: it came out of the blue. All we can do is speculate, guess, at how and why it happened. Why, for instance, was it James and John who made the request?
Did they somehow see themselves as different from the other disciples? Was this request motivated by the power that they felt, or might it have come from some deep insecurity?
Why, with all that there was to be done on this earth, in this lifetime, were they suddenly concerned with their place with Christ in glory?
But this situation should give us pause to look at ourselves. In this life and in the life to come, are we jockeying for position? And I say "in this life" because the way we look upon this earthly life tells us a lot about how we probably look upon eternal life. In the work world we frequently read and hear about "career tracks" and "climbing the ladder of success."
Now there's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes people become so obsessed with where they're going to be at the end of the track or at the top of the ladder that the process of getting there gets lost.
And Jesus answer for James and John is altogether appropriate:
"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?"
Now that strikes me as a kind answer, an understated answer. He does not brush them aside, although he probably considered it. In that first sentence, I can also hear Jesus saying, "Why don't you go off and think over what you've just asked for?"
But Jesus goes on to let them know what is involved in the absolute minimum requirements for attaining such a goal. And it boils down to this: "Are you fully prepared to live the life I live, to endure what I endure, and to suffer what I suffer?"
And at a much lower level, but relevant here, I can imagine a young athlete or artist asking an accomplished professional how to achieve success. The answer should be: "Are you prepared to sacrifice as I have sacrificed?"
James and John have a quick response for Jesus: "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."
Jesus has not closed the door on this issue. He's telling his disciples, "OK, come along, follow in my footsteps, do as I do, living, enduring, and suffering."
All those options are clearly available, and he is not expressing doubt that they are able to follow through on them. And the experienced, successful professional, speaking with the inexperienced person who aspires to success, might say much the same thing.
"OK, if you're prepared to sacrifice, and I have no reason to doubt that, come right along."
But it's important to notice that at this point the path has been cleared for the journey, but nothing has been said about the destination. We know where James and John want to go, and Jesus is telling them how to get there, but no promises have been made. Because there's a catch.
Jesus continues, "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."
And Jesus is telling them that the decision is not his to make. And for that reason, he has not discouraged them either. Return to the parallel of the professional and the beginner. The professional can tell the beginner how to work for success; but the professional cannot guarantee it.
Some interpret the words that "it is for those for whom it has been prepared" as meaning that God has already made the decision, that one's place in glory has already been determined. But I doubt that. Rather, I believe that we have an important part to play in determining that sort of thing. And the manner in which we drink of the cup that Jesus drinks, the faith that we have in the truth of Christ, makes all the difference in the world.
Now I don't know whether all the rest of the disciples were hanging around as this conversation took place, but "when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John."
And what would have been the basis of that indignation? I am sure that they were upset that James and John were requesting first and second place. After all, who were they to demand special privileges?
They're just two of the crew, and Jesus had never declared any of the disciples to be more worthy than any of the others.
But I also wonder if they might not have been embarrassed by this whole scene. Here were two of their own, asking a favor, which, depending on the way you look at it, was pretty dumb. It's also possible that they were upset that James and John were putting Jesus on the spot by asking for something that wasn't his to grant.
But there is one other possibility: Maybe THEY wanted what James and John were asking for, but rather than admit that, they stirred up a self-righteous fuss.
So we have the disciples in turmoil, a restless family resulting from all this. Jesus needs to pull them all back together, and he seizes the opportunity to turn this into a learning experience.
"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."
They knew that. And this sort of thing is nothing new to us now. But Jesus is using the previous conversation as a springboard to explain leadership to his disciples and what he expects of them.
And right away we hear him speaking not of mere leadership, but of oppressive leadership, of that kind of leadership which he would NOT have them practice.
Without attacking James and John directly, he will put into proper perspective what he would have them, and all disciples, avoid: seeking to be in a position above others, ruling over others, lording it over others, being tyrants over others.
"But," Jesus continues, "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."
And the answer to James and John is clear. If you really want to be first in line, head for last place.
And this was the message of the sermon on the mount when Jesus elevated the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
This was the message accompanying Jesus response to the rich person seeking eternal life: "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." Jesus has reversed the order of the world; for the leadership of the earthly world is not of the same nature as the leadership of the eternal world.
And then Jesus speaks of himself, and enters into prophesy: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Jesus came, not to have other folks do things for him, but so that he might do for others. Jesus came to give to us, for us, to the fullest extent possible. And in that giving, his message was so strong that the earthly powers couldn't handle it.
The ultimate irony of the crucifixion was that an earthly world that took rather than gave, that enslaved rather than served, could not co-exist with someone who gave, who served.
Jesus elevated slavery to an art form; and in so doing he embarrassed the slave-masters of the world so badly that they needed to destroy him. And in dying, he died for us; he paid the ransom for those of us held hostage. We're free because he died.
But the message and the example live. And our need to serve others in love continues. Our acts of service are, in a sense, small deaths in which we give up something of ourselves for others, in order to pay the ransom for them so that they are allowed to be more free than they would have been without us.
James and John should be examples to us--in this passage, bad examples. For I believe we should be less concerned with who sits where and when than with the feeling that as we travel through life Jesus is continually with us, calling upon us to drink the cup that he drinks and to be baptized with his baptism.
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