Great Service/Power to Serve
Sunday, October 18
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Most High, your Anointed One offered himself freely as witness against our violence, our acts of oppression, and our sin. As you delighted to call him your Son, give us the courage to bring you equal delight by our willingness to drink the cup of sacrifice on behalf of our sisters and brothers, and, with them, offer you praise unceasing and lives transformed as true heirs of your grace-filled realm. Amen.
James 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.” 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.”
All Readings for this Sunday
Job 38:1-7 [34-41]
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
1. What do you think motivated the Zebedees to ask a favor of Jesus?
2. What “nets” have you not left behind?
3. Are contemporary Christians open to the kind of “dying” that Marcus Borg describes?
4. What is the signficance of Jesus’ use of the present tense (rather than “must not be”) in observing “It is not so among you”?
5. How might we change our systems and practices to better reflect Jesus’ words in this text about serving? How powerful is our religious imagination?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
We can only guess what’s going on in the minds of the disciples as they walk the dusty roads with Jesus. For a while now, they haven’t known (or remembered) that Jerusalem is their destination, and over the past three chapters, it seems that they haven’t wanted to know why they’re on this journey in the first place. Three times now Jesus has told them, directly, what’s going to happen, that he is going to die, and each time, they react badly, seeming to miss his point entirely.
Back in chapter eight, Peter actually rebuked Jesus for talking about his rejection and suffering, and Jesus responded by calling him “Satan.” As they continued on their way and Jesus used the time for some in-depth, private lessons for his disciples, he once again spoke of his coming betrayal and death, and his rising again. (They had a particularly difficult time understanding that last part, as you might imagine.) The disciples’ response was a lively argument, which didn’t escape Jesus’ notice, over who among them was the greatest. And now, in this tenth chapter, as Mark’s long introduction to the passion narrative comes to an end, Douglas Hare notes, Jesus tells them one more time that he is going to Jerusalem to face his death.
Why the disconnect?
The disconnect between Jesus’ words and the next thing that happens is so dramatic that we’re tempted to think that a verse of the text must have gotten lost. Could Jesus have been any clearer about what was about to happen? We imagine the early Christian audience listening to the entire Gospel, and we assume that they heard the repetition three times of this terrible prediction. Where have the disciples been? How insensitive could they be?
André Resner, Jr., observes that it hasn’t made much of a difference that Jesus speaks directly here rather than indirectly through parables: either way, the disciples are left scratching their heads. Scholars suggest several possibilities, of course: are they like “green soldiers who are contemplating future battles in which they will earn glory,” as Richard Swanson suggests? Then, he observes, we might criticize them “not for paying too little attention to Jesus’ words about the coming disaster, but for joining in too eagerly and ignorantly.” That’s what we humans tend to do, when we have no idea what we’re in for.
What if they get it after all?
On the other hand, the disciples may totally get what Jesus is saying. Charles Campbell observes that in that case, they are understandably afraid, and, rather than being power hungry, they react as human beings naturally do: they seek security. Campbell suggests that humans have made many mistakes by reacting to fear and seeking security, even violating many of our most important values and beliefs. We want to make sure that, no matter what happens, our place and our safety are secured; if we know that, we think we can handle whatever comes. Campbell observes that Jesus actually reassures the disciples that, in spite of their fear, they will measure up in the end.
Are the disciples speaking from anxiety? Or could it be that they are speaking out of deep faith? Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon, “The Trickle-Up Effect,” acknowledges the possibility of their “gross ambition,” but their question may also illustrate their profound confidence in Jesus and his final triumph. No matter how bad things may look or sound, James and John “are so sure of Jesus’ final victory that they sign up to go with him.” After all, these disciples have been following Jesus for some time now, and have given up everything in order to do so.
Be careful what you ask for
In any case, as Jesus himself observed, they have no idea what they are asking (v. 38b). C. Clifton Black points out the sad and sorry way their question (“we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” v. 35b) echoes King Herod’s “rash” words to Herodias in chapter six (“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it,” v. 22b), thus aligning themselves with the powers that be “who execute righteous teachers.” (Admittedly, this sounds a bit harsh.)
As long as we recognize our own Zebedee inclinations, it seems reasonable to be disappointed in their strategic plan for Jesus, their big picture for his ministry. Their religious imagination, it seems, has failed them. They’re going with the same old categories and assumptions that they’ve always had, and just inserting themselves into the places of prestige and power. Instead of growing closer to Jesus’ radical vision of the reign of God, Resner writes, they struggle with walking away from their old and long-cherished expectations, “those surreptitious nets of desire for personal power and glory” that entangle and trap us all, each in our own age, in our own way. Is it any wonder that this section of the Gospel begins and ends with stories about blind men being restored to sight? Charles Cousar observes that the insiders fail to see what the “blind” outsiders readily perceive.
Are you able…are you really able?
This time Jesus responds to the disciples’ cluelessness with a very difficult question: Are they able to drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism that he has received? Their response is embarrassingly swift: “We are able” (v. 39). Here, they apparently have no idea what Jesus is talking about. Of all the commentaries on this text, Marcus Borg is most effective at explaining something of the meaning of Jesus’ words in his own setting and in our lives as his disciples today. Both of these terms, “drinking the cup” and “baptism,” Borg writes, were “images for death.” And we of course know that Jesus is speaking of his own death, and that most of his earliest disciples are said to have been martyred (along with many other early Christians).
In our own time, we recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, the women missionaries killed in El Salvador, and any number of other martyrs who literally died because of their faithfulness to Jesus. But what about the vast majority of Christians today who long to follow Jesus faithfully, but will most probably not (literally) lose their lives for doing so? Borg speaks of this kind of dying as a metaphor with two meanings, both at the core of Christian faith: “a dying of the self as the center of its own concern” and “a dying to the world as the center of security and identity.”
A different kind of “dying”
That kind of dying, Borg says, leads to transformation, when we lose our self-absorbed insecurities and are reborn: “the radical recentering brings about a change so sharp that it can be described as dying to an old life and being born into a new life.” It happens to different people in different ways (and we don’t accomplish it – it happens to us), whether sudden or by a long journey, but it surely involves “a letting go.” And here, Borg points to the heart of the matter when Jesus caused so much trouble by challenging the religious leaders who had found their own security in the “conventional wisdom” of the world around them. In Jesus’ own day and in our own as well, we run the same risk, even (and perhaps especially) in the life of faith, when we seek legitimation of how we’re already living, or would like to live, rather than accepting the new life offered by Jesus.
So the disciples – and these were the ones closest to Jesus, among the first called, the ones he took up on the mountaintop – have got their minds on power, not on serving and certainly not on dying an inglorious death. Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text considers power and its (paradoxically) fragile and temporary nature, and the anxiety suffered even by those at the top, as they worry about being displaced: “There are only so many head tables in the world, after all, and the game of musical chairs never stops.” The Zebedee brothers think the systems are good, but the wrong people are in the places of power; once they come into their own, alongside Jesus, everything will be fixed from the top down, thanks to what Taylor calls “the ultimate trickle-down effect.”
What dream seduces your heart?
How seductive is that dream! Meanwhile, Jesus is up-ending the head tables and paying far more attention to serving than being served. And that’s how Jesus takes the disciples’ focus away from their own ambitions: he tells them not to be like the Gentiles with all their lording over others, their prestige and position and the bullying that comes with them. Don’t be like that, he says. In fact, “it is not so among you” (v. 43). (Isn’t the present tense wonderful there? Jesus’ religious imagination is working just fine.)
The reign of God is so very different from our conventional way of doing things, and our conventional beliefs about what is best. Taylor reminds us that Jesus calls us and teaches us by example to “transform the world, not from the top down but from the bottom up. The ultimate trickle-up effect.” That’s the power the God gives us in abundance, “the strongest stuff in the world: the power to serve.”
A message with a specific audience
Who is Jesus addressing here? Gérald Caron writes that these are instructions for those in power or those who long to be in power, but not for those who are traditionally expected to serve. In other words, using this text to justify slavery or servitude or the subjugation of women would be a violation of the heart of the gospel. In fact, Caron lifts up the women in Mark’s Gospel who have grasped the true meaning of Jesus’ ministry much more quickly and more gracefully than the male disciples, who predictably fall back on the assumptions built into a patriarchal society (and ingrained in their way of thinking, and hoping). It’s “curious,” Caron writes, that these women are not part of this difficult conversation about service, and about the world being turned upside down.
A discomforting gospel
The word “even” (kai) is missing in the NRSV of this passage, but it adds an emphasis and clarity that reminds us that Jesus himself modeled this kind of service, and this willingness to lay down one’s life in the process. In doing so, Jesus ransomed us, “the many,” setting us free just as a slave or a hostage could be ransomed and set free. In this sense, Jesus paid the price for sin. We Christians speak a lot today about Jesus dying for our sins, or because of our sins, or both. We find (or take) great comfort in that belief. But comfort isn’t the whole message of the gospel, in fact, sometimes the gospel is quite dis-comforting.
Lamar Williamson, Jr., reads a challenge in this text to our modern (or post-modern) “complacency and apathy” as we hear in the gospel a “no-risk offer” that helps us to stay on the straight and narrow. There’s more to it than that, he writes, more than just getting our lives together, and may even be “disruptive” at times, requiring “a costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an aging parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs, or any person whose situation elicits neighborly service at personal cost.”
Along with Marcus Borg’s words about dying to self, this understanding of serving is something we (along with those women long ago) can grasp and live out, no matter the cost. It will mean a change in our worldview and the values ingrained in us, especially in affluent and “powerful” countries and cultures. But we contemporary followers of Jesus, Zebedee brothers in our own place and time, hear the same call, and the same offer, that our ancestors did long ago. Will we follow all the way to Jerusalem, and the cross, and the rising again?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Ernesto Tinajero, 20th century
“If you read the Bible and it does not challenge you, then you are reading yourself and not the Bible.”
Helen Keller, 20th century
“Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
C.G. Jung, 20th century
“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”
Albert Schweitzer, 20th century
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.”
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