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.” – Mark 10:35-45
The Gospel according to Mark might just as easily be titled “Apostles Behaving Badly.” It seems like all through this gospel, the Apostles are doing something wrong, or stupid, or they’re missing the point of what Jesus is talking about, and through it all, you can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes or giving them a face palm, ad getting really frustrated with them. Sometimes in Jesus’ words, you get the feeling that he’d like to clunk the Apostles’ heads together like something out of an old Three Stooges comedy.
Today’s gospel text is another example of this. Here are the Apostles James and John, brothers, asking Jesus if they can be at Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom of God, making them the most powerful people in the whole Kingdom, short of Jesus himself.
Of course, Jesus tells them no, that he isn’t in charge of the seating arrangements in the Kingdom, and of course, the other Apostles get upset at the cheekiness of the brothers’ request. But Jesus calms them all down, he calls them together, and he starts to teach them. Maybe telling them not to be too upset with James and John, maybe reminding them of another time when they were all arguing about who was the greatest in the Kingdom, he tells them very simply and directly who God is going to consider the greatest. In God’s eyes, serving others is what makes a person great. It’s what shows that the person truly gets God’s whole message, the message that Christ teaches us. Greatness in God’s eyes doesn’t come from getting a big promotion, or a book deal, or wining an election. It doesn’t come from being a celebrity, or from having everyone seeing your name in print or plastered on a building. Maybe all those things are nice, but more often than not, those kinds of things are actually distractions, obstacles to real greatness as God defines it.
Our prime objective as God’s people is to care for others, to look out for others, to serve others humbly, because of God’s love for us. Helping with the Salvation Army Miracle Kitchen is a part of this. So is providing the chapel for lunchtime visitors, and organizing a reception for a family after a funeral service. But it isn’t just caring for other people – it’s caring for all of God’s creation. The blessing of the animals? Donating a day’s worth of work at the Permaculture Park? That’s all a part of it, too.
If we want to be considered great in the Kingdom of God, we need to find ways to serve God’s creatures and creation all around us.
That’s very true. But there’s another angle that should be mentioned here, too. There have been a lot of times where Jesus’ message here has been used exploitatively, by people in power to keep people with less power in their place, serving the more powerful. To keep them in a place of powerlessness or victimhood, who are told by the powerful that it’s just their lot in life – in fact, it’s even their sacred responsibility and their Christian duty to serve their supposed superiors, enduring all kinds of personal deprivation. They’re told to accept this situation gladly, without complaining, even that it’s through their serving and suffering that God will redeem them.
You can find this argument being made, directly or indirectly, on a large scale, in socioeconomic arguments in any number of countries. And you can also see it on a micro level, at a family level, in asymmetrical or even abusive personal relationships.
This is clearly not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is not telling someone who’s so consumed by serving other people that they’ve lost their own self-identity and sense of self-worth, that what they really need is to just double down and serve others in an even more self-destructive way.
Remember that Jesus is speaking in this passage to a group of people who have been involved in a fight over who among them is the greatest – people who needed a big serving of humble pie, who need to be more servantlike.
I imagine that at various times, we all need to hear that lesson Jesus was offering to the Apostles. But I also suspect that some of us also need to be reminded of the flip side of this argument, too. Maybe we’re in some unhealthy, unbalanced, codependent or even abusive personal relationship that’s gradually destroying us, inside and out, and we feel guilty if we try to stand up for ourselves. If you’re in a situation like that, you need to know that Jesus isn’t telling us that we need to stay in that kind of harmful situation. That is not today’s message.
I think Jesus’ message here really just boils down to this: realize that in all the things we do, God wants us to uphold and honor and serve all those around us, and all of creation as well. God wants us to do that humbly and out of love for God and the ones we’re serving, and without expecting a pat on the back or a plaque on our wall. And to do that without losing ourselves in the process. If we do that, then we aren’t likely to get any eye rolls or face palms from Jesus.
Thanks be to God.