Mark 10 leads us into a wonderful scenario that may be more applicable to our personal faith than we would like to believe possible at first glance. James and John have shown themselves to be good disciples, and in their goodness have found the courage to ask Jesus for special recognition and authority. Jesus seems interested in what they desire and opens the space for them to make their requests known. They ask to be seated on his left and his right when Jesus’ kingdom finally comes to earth. (To be fair Jesus had just proclaimed that no one who had given up their life to follow him would be disappointed in their reward.) Sacrificing for Jesus might mean suffering now, but it will/could mean growth, grandeur, and glory in the end. He says that at that time the first (or highest) in this world will be put in the back of the line and the last (or least) in this world will move ahead like they have been given a golden fast pass. Jesus then offers to give them the desires of their hearts. They are content for everyone else to have those elevated places now in this world, but when the kingdom comes they want what they deserve. Good old James and John seem so spiritual to delay their immediate gratification for a bonus at the end of time.
Jesus quickly tells them that they do not know what they are asking, and to add insult to injury, that what they are asking is not His to give away anyway. They assure him that they surely do know what they have asked for and seem to imply that they know good and well he can supply their demand. Of course, they don’t know what they have asked for. And neither do we. Jesus does admit that they will in fact drink the cup he will drink and will share in the baptism that was poured over him, but seating assignments in the kingdom are not his concern. While Jesus doesn’t scold or belittle them, their colleagues seem to take this opportunity to lay down the thunder on the Sons of Thunder (v 41). I tend to believe that greedy Judas was the lead prosecutor, but it could have been stupid Peter, or even recovering tax collector Matthew/Levi who was surely good at keeping score himself. Nonetheless, James and John are cut down for creating such a mess of the Master’s future plans.
This story is impossible for us to relate to, right? Not one of us would dare think it wise to request a special seat in the kingdom. Nothing we have heard in sermon or song; nothing we have read in ancient scriptures or prayers; nothing we have witnessed in the lives of saints would make us think that we might be eligible to sit next to Jesus at any point. We have been taught the opposite by denying ourselves and taking up a cross. Most people I know are just hoping for a seat in the kingdom when it comes and will be glad to sit in the hallway or maybe even on the back porch. Placement is not critical. Just being picked is the whole deal. We would never ask for preferred status in the kingdom. Sitting on the left or the right never even crosses our minds.
Or does it?
Well, probably not just like that. We probably don’t think of his right or left because we think of it differently. Why sit on Jesus’ right or left when we can get him to sit on our right or left? Our temptation is to be focused on us at the center and Jesus somewhere in our vicinity. At least James and John had the first chair filled by the right person! We, however, sit in the primary place and allow Jesus to take his seat on our right side on Sundays at church, and perhaps on our left side on Tuesday in the staff meeting that is driving us crazy. But we can cover the rest of our week with a variety of other guests close by. We ask Jesus to sit on our right side on our wedding day and might invite him to sit on the left side when we enter into couples counseling. But we fill those seats with friends at every other moment, so we can enjoy life fully. We ask Jesus to sit on our right side when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and on our left side when we are in fear of the evil around us. But the rest of the journey can be managed fairly well on our own. Jesus can have the preferred seat in our life – on the right or the left – when we need him – but only when we need him. He is free to sit elsewhere at other times. Doesn’t he have other people to tend to?
James and John are not bad, or dumb, or even sinful in this story. They are just wrong. Power and preference is not the business or concern of the disciple of Christ. Status in the kingdom is the concern of the true servant who is busy pouring out their life as a witness of the one true God. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t tempted into thinking that we should be rich for choosing Jesus, or that the sun should always shine on the church we attend, or that the mischief of the world will not dust up the life of she/he that steps out in faith. Faith does not promise or provide safety, security, or success in life. All of us can and will drink a cup and share in his baptism of death. But by faith we might find ourselves filled with the fruit of the kingdom vine and washed new for heavenly clothes to wear in this world. Disciples are given the right to lay down a life today for a life of eternity in faith, hope and love.
But this is not a delayed seating plan. It is for today. It is for right now. The glory of God has come! It was at hand in Mark 10. God’s glory is not sitting somewhere out in the future. It is here because Christ is here! And because Christ is here and we are living by faith in him, we are confronted by his words: “What do you want me to do for you?” Let’s not make the mistake of giving our wish away for status when we can use Jesus’ offer to settle issues that spiritually reck us.
What I want from Jesus is not a special seat or a elevated identity. What I want from Jesus – and you should want it too – is for him to look at and listen to me with the same patience, gentleness and love that he has for James and John. What I want from Jesus is not judgement or condemnation, sarcasm or cynicism, doubt or disappointment over my inability to be a good disciple. What I want – what I need – is for him to just ask me to walk in his company and share in his glory (emphasis on HIS glory). What I want is for him to remind me that this not-so-perfect-life of mine has been picked up and made whole by his touch. What I want from Jesus is to be assured of his desire to know me and his continued use for me in his kingdom. What I want from Jesus is for him to help me reject my need for the preferred seat in the church or kingdom, and to bless me with the strength to live freely in contentment at the end of the line.
I want this, and I need this. And you do, too. Only Jesus can make it possible. We aren’t able, even by combining our powers and abilities. We simply are not able…but HE is.
For Sunday / October 18, 2015 / Proper 24
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But 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?” 39They 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; 40but 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.” (Mark 10)