Sunday, October 21, 1:00 pm
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“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…’” Mark 10:37-38
To tell the truth, at the beginning of the week I was all set to beat up on James and John. It’s easy to do. Their friend Jesus has just finished telling them that he is about to die. Even worse, he’s told them that he is about to be tortured and executed. And how do they respond? “Give us whatever we want.” They sound like whiny toddlers pulling on their parent’s leg.
And what is that they want? They want glory. They want to sit on either side of Jesus in the heavenly realm. It’s a pretty brazen thing to ask for, especially since this is the third time Jesus has told them what’s about to happen. They don’t want to hear any talk of mockery…or flogging…certainly not death. They just want the radiance of the bright lights, the proximity to power.
There’s another story about James and John in the Gospel of Luke. It’s about a time when Jesus and his disciples thought that they would stop at a Samaritan village, but for some reason the village refused to offer them hospitality.[i] How did James and John react to that rejection? They come to Jesus and say, “Lord, did you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus puts an end to that talk, but their reaction tells us two things about James and John: (1) They might have a tendency to over-react in certain situations. And (2) they do not have a realistic grasp of their own abilities. Imagine if Jesus had said, “Sure, by all means command heavenly fire to consume the village.” How exactly did James and John think they were going to pull that off?
OK, so clearly I didn’t entirely let go of my desire to make fun of James and John. I’m willing to concede that we are like James and John. We like proximity to power. We’d far prefer to sit beside Jesus in heavenly glory than follow him down a path of humiliation and horror.
But in the middle of the week I read a commentary that helped me see James and John differently.[ii] Spiritual writer Debie Thomas observes that, unlike me, Jesus does not make fun of their request. He responds with compassion and pushes them to think about how his kind of power is different from the traditional earthly forms of power that they’ve known. Debie’s commentary also helped me see some redeeming qualities in what James and John ask of Jesus.
First, they are bold enough to ask for what they want. Could their request be more mature? Sure. Is it pretty selfish? Yes. But at least they make known what they want. When they ask, Jesus is able to meet them where they are and teach them about moving beyond their selfishness. Jesus is able to help them begin to see that his version of power means taking care of the powerless.
Second, James and John bring their question to the right person. They have faith in Jesus. They have faith that Jesus will hear them. He’s the person with whom they have a deep relationship. They trust that in spite of all that scary talk about death, Jesus will prevail in the end. While James and John may not know what resurrection really means, they believe that Jesus will lead them where they need to go. That’s something. There are plenty of times when we don’t know what the future will hold, but what matters is knowing that we can turn to Jesus in all times and in all circumstances.
And third, James and John hold an ambitious vision of the reign of God. They believe that Jesus will ultimately rule in glory. There’s a chance that their motives are better than I’ve given them credit for. Maybe, just maybe, they want to share in Jesus’ future glory because it will allow them to do important things on behalf of people in need. Jesus doesn’t say that their ambition is terrible. He just reminds them that in this life it will be costly to do things his way. Jesus is always going to be about serving others – and he’s going to do it with humility and as far away from the spotlight as possible. Jesus doesn’t want people bowing down before him or bringing him food on golden platters. What would that accomplish, really? What he wants is to care for people, to make sure they have what they need: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
Jesus hears what James and John want, but he flips the script. He challenges the very premise of the question that they bring to him, and in doing so, he challenges us too. Instead of asking, “How can I gain the most power over other people?” Jesus wants us to ask: “How can I be empowered to serve the most people? How will people’s lives be better when I follow Jesus the servant instead of Jesus the superstar?”
On Friday I saw a news story about two candidates running for a seat in the Vermont legislature.[iii] Lucy Rogers is the Democrat, and Zac Mayo is the Republican. They are both extremely driven. Both of them are well on their way to visiting every home in the district – about 2000 in all. The locals say they haven’t seen anything like it. As one voter said, “They both want to win in the worst way.”
The two candidates recently held a debate at the local library. At the end of the debate, they did something surprising – something that no one knew they were planning to do and no one expected. They got up from their separate tables and started moving the furniture out of the way. Zac picked up a guitar, and Lucy grabbed a cello, and they proceeded to play a duet together. They sang together too – a song about longing for a less competitive society.
One local resident called it “sweet and kind” and said it “just drew you into a different place.” Others said things like “It marked a turning point for us” and “It was what we really needed, what we have needed all along.”
Look – I know that the problems of the world will not all be solved by rivals sitting down and playing duets. The World Series isn’t going to turn into a concert, and no one wants to hear the Dodgers and the Red Sox sing. But this story from Vermont gave me hope. Hope that the desire to win doesn’t have to be the only driving force in the universe. Hope that even when we’re engaged in the vigorous debates that democracy demands, we can still be open to learning something new from each other. Hope that striving to be the best doesn’t take away our capacity to be humble – humble enough to serve other people and the greater good.
Jesus’ way does not make sense in a status-hungry world. To serve rather than be served is not logical if you’re longing for power and the perks that it brings. Service demands something of us. It costs something. But Jesus gave his life so that we could be free from obsessing over status and power – and freed instead to serve our neighbors.
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Hard words. Holy words. May God give us the strength to live them. Amen.
[ii]Debie Thomas is always great, but she has been on fire with her lectionary commentaries in recent weeks with some difficult texts. I am obviously deeply indebted to this week’s: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1978
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” Mark 10:21
What are you worth? How do you even think about that question? Usually it calls to mind our financial worth – our retirement savings (or lack thereof), our stock portfolio (or lack thereof), our home, our car, our possessions.
What are you worth? Maybe you think about it in other ways. The talents that you bring to your work. The ways that you show up for people in your life. What you offer to your community, to your church, to your neighbors.
What are you worth? Whether we answer that question in financial terms or in other ways, we often unconsciously translate it to a different question in our minds. We hear instead: “What makes you worthy?” What makes you worthy of having what you have? What makes you worthy of love?
Today a man with some wealth – he has “many possessions” – comes to Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This man has a goal. He wants to lock in his access to eternal life, and he wants to make sure he has a plan to get there. The 2018 version of this man might come to Jesus (or to a church) with this question, but he might also look for answers from the right bestselling book, or the right TED talk, or the right podcast. How does he get to the goal?
But what if the problem isn’t that he doesn’t have the right answers or the right plan? What if he’s asking the wrong question? He asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do? I, alone, relying on my own power and initiative. What must I do?
Or maybe his emphasis is slightly different. What must I do? Not what must I believe or trust or have faith in, but what must I do? Surely there are steps to be taken, an action plan to be designed and executed. The man’s already done his best by following the law. He’s kept those commandments his entire life, he says. He has been faithful to his spouse. He has shown respect to his parents. He has told the truth and tried to be honorable in his dealings. But Jesus tells him there’s one more thing…
Jesus says, “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” Sell. Give. Come and follow. It’s a clear three-point plan. Just not one the man was expecting.
It’s a lot to ask. It’s especially a lot to ask in the ancient world, where there was a strong association between one’s wealth and one’s moral character. According to that world view, good people were rewarded with riches. Bad people were punished with poverty or illness. Jesus is asking the man to give up not just his possessions, but his ability to be seen as a “good person.”
That understanding isn’t limited to biblical times. It’s alive and well here in the United States. It’s called the prosperity gospel. Any number of prominent pastors will tell you a version of the same idea – that God rewards faithful people with wealth, health, and happiness. If you are living right, then you can expect good things to come your way, and if those good things don’t happen, then it must be because your faith isn’t strong enough.
We know in our hearts that this way of thinking is wrong. We wouldn’t have to try very hard to come up with a list of people who have done rotten things but are obscenely wealthy, and we all know people who are kind and generous but struggle to pay the bills and have more than their share of challenges. It’s not just a system of divine rewards and punishments.
I can’t say for sure whether Jesus really expects the man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. I am sure that Jesus wants the man to consider what it would be like to be without all of the things on which his status and self-confidence are built. Without his belongings, this man would be dependent on the compassion and generosity of others. He would no longer have the security and self-reliance he’s come to enjoy. That might be terrifying, but it would also be freeing.
Jesus is disrupting the idea that eternal life is ours to earn – that it’s attainable in the same way as a promotion at work or a good credit rating.
Jesus is taking on the belief that we can depend entirely on ourselves – on our wits, on our hard work, on our ability to succeed, on what we have accumulated and built for ourselves. Those are all admirable traits – but they are not what saves us in the end.
It makes us nervous. We, like the disciples, want to be rewarded for our good behavior, although I suspect we are less enthusiastic about being punished for our not-so-good behavior. The disciples can rightfully claim that they have made tremendous sacrifices to follow Jesus. That should count for something, right? But the way Jesus is talking has disturbed them. “Then who can be saved?” they ask, trying to hide the panic in their voices.
Jesus reminds them of the heart of the matter: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.” There’s plenty we can do in this life to make it better for our families, our neighbors, and for people we may never meet. That’s part of our mission as followers of Jesus. But our salvation? That’s in God’s hands. And you know what happens when we really trust that we don’t have to earn eternal life? We are free to be and to do so much more in God’s name than we have ever imagined.
Let’s go back to that man who first poses the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I’ve often wondered what happened to him. What I find most heartbreaking is that he wanders away without realizing the most important part. It’s what we hear right before Jesus answers his question: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Jesus sees the man. Jesus loves him. And Jesus does the same for us. Jesus sees us. Jesus loves us.
It’s still hard to let go of the questions.
What must I do? Nothing. It is God who claims you and loves you and gives you eternal life apart from what you have done or not done.
What must I do? Nothing. In the gift of eternal life God sets you free from the striving and sweating and stressing that consume so much of this life.
What am I worth? You are worth everything. And you are worthy of love – in this life and the next. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ