Mark 10: 35-45
35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
In the verses immediately preceding this passage, we find Jesus explicitly telling the disciples what was ahead—-“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Though this is Jesus’ third attempt to warn his disciples, once again they can not take in what he is saying.
My first reaction has been to be a bit judgemental about the disciples. They are both thick headed and petty. With three almost identical explanations, the disciples still only hear what they expect. What is their problem? And then they vie for position like five year olds. But as I have been in conversation with the scripture, I have come to appreciate how hard it is to hear something genuinely new. We are hard wired to hold on to the familiar. Ironically this is one of the first things I tell new clients. I just hadn’t seen the parallel to scripture much less how it might apply to me.
It turns out that the brain is a self sealing tire. You can puncture it but almost as soon as something new is introduced, it seals itself off. The retention rate in therapy is often under ten percent. Especially when the content is different than our self perception, people listen, even agree but then forget.
I tell couples early in the process that I assume both of them are toxic. Both of them do things which impair the relationship and do harm to their partner. There is usually nervous laughter but almost always an acknowledgement of such toxicity. And in the majority of cases, there is a willingness to try to mitigate their harmful behaviors. But almost as quickly, they will start explaining how their history explains their own behavior or suggesting that they are only reacting to their partner’s bad behavior.
It is really hard to see the parts of us that are not kind and worse the parts of us that are actually harmful. Even when we know it is true, we hide and defend. It takes an amazing amount of time to trust that we can be transparent and acceptable. We are so conditioned to judging ourselves and/or being judged by others, it is hard imagine we can belong and we can loved as we are. But if we want to love better, we must start with where we are, not where we wish we were. No matter how often the good news is preached, we resist. It requires a nakedness we cannot tolerate.
Last week the rich young ruler earnestly sought to be good. He could be a faithful member of any church in the country. But he could not imagine that if he insisted on being good as way to inherit eternal life, he could only fail. He could not imagine, much less accept the newness of the Gospel. He could only see through the eyes of his expectations.
This week, we have the same problem. The lure of favor, position and power is that we will be enhanced. We will be taken more seriously. We will matter more in the world. We seek such status in many many ways. As children, most all of us have felt slighted or a bit jealous when someone answers a question that we knew the answer to. We compete for who gets to sit in the front seat or who gets to sit next to mom or dad. As adults, we often want the perks—the visible signs of success—the corner office, the nice house and car. It is the ordinary secular quantification of worth. We are always seeking it.
The disciples had figured out that Jesus was the Christ, that he was the Messiah. But they remained clueless about what kind of Christ Jesus was. They could only think in human terms and by secular standards. They wanted to be close to the seat of power, they wanted reflected glory, the recognition and the influence over others that goes with being the confidante of the king. Little did they know that following Jesus meant giving up worldly definitions of power. It meant giving up the very things they were seeking. Instead of secular glory, it meant giving up any sense of worldly security. (The last two people who were on Jesus’ right and left were being crucified.)
These concepts simply do not fit into human thinking. As we said last week, you might has well try to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.
The concept of grace, the promise that our worth is not quantifiable is almost impossible to grasp, much less live. In God’s kingdom, power and position are not a function of control over others. As Jesus points out, the secular rulers ‘lord it over other people and great rulers are tyrants over others. Secular leaders seek to control. Jesus’ kingship allowed him to serve, to be mindful and to love. His leadership was based upon his abiding trust in God’s presence in his life. Nothing that happened to him, even when he called out in despair, broke his relationship with God. He died to show us that trusting God was both possible and the only way to eternal life.
When I look honestly at myself, I have the same problem as disciples. I want recognition, I want to be seen. I want to matter. I know I have been promised all of that in the gospel but I still look for validation from others. I still want favor and position by secular standards. I fervently wish that grace could come through my understanding and training. But in real life, the experience of grace has come through the people around me. Not only have I had some wonderful examples, I have had people show up for me. It is one thing to talk about belonging, loving and God. It is something entirely different to have the experience. When Catherine Carter found her way through the medical maze to visit when I was in the ER she was a gift. Her presence made the family of God real at a time I was lost. Many others have done likewise. It is in these moments of care from others where we can see that Jesus lives.
I live in a space that has tasted the experience of grace and a space that resists it. Even as I distrust, I yearn. The wonder and paradox of Jesus’ kingdom is that there is room for insecurities and uncertainties. We actually do not have to understand much less know. We have to notice and imitate the way God loves. When that happens the lure of power begins to evaporate.
A closing thought. It is probably fortunate that we really don’t know what we’re getting into in our lives and in our faith. Faith is often taking the next step, trusting that somehow we’ll manage—trusting by our walking that God is with us no matter what we must face. We probably would be immobilized if we really knew what it meant to be an adult, to parent or to face our aging. But somehow we manage. Though they were certainly told, the disciples did not know what was ahead. But they did not have to know, they had to follow. And so do we.
Grant us the love and support that gives us the courage to love each other deeply—from the heart. Let it be so.