Text: Mark 10:35-45 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The Request of James and John
35 And James and John, the sons of Zeb′edee, 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 do 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 to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
If ever there were a real life illustration of “be careful what you wish for,” this is it.
James and John really thought they were on to something. They figured that, if they just took Jesus aside and made that audacious request, he would grant it, and they would, as the saying goes, have it made in the shade.
But what exactly was it they were asking for that would make their future so bright?
What they wanted was greatness. Not, mind you, greatness in the sense that Jesus talks about, where the last will be first and the first last, and the greatest among you will be the servant of all – oh, no. They wanted worldly greatness. They wanted greatness like Herod wanted greatness, like Caesar wanted greatness – the greatness that comes with power, and all the trappings and the glory that come with it.
It makes you wonder if they had been paying attention at all to what Jesus had been teaching them for the past three minutes, much less the past three years. Jesus has just told them “But many who are first will be last, and the last first;” and then Mark recounts this just before this morning’s passage: “They were on the road, on their way up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. They were in a state of astonished bewilderment, and, as they followed him, they were afraid. Once again he took the Twelve to him, and began to tell them what was going to happen to him. ‘Look you!’ he said. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and experts in the law, and they will condemn him to death, and they will hand him over to the Gentiles, and they will make jest of him, and they will spit on him, and they will scourge him and they will kill him. And after three days he will rise again.’”
And right after that James and John saunter up to Jesus and make their request!
There is no one so blind as the person who clearly sees what’s before him/her and fails to perceive it. James and John had once again completely failed to understand Jesus. What is perhaps the most glaring and amazing about this incident is not so much that it occurred in the first place, but that it occurred at the time it did. Jesus had just given his disciples the most definite and detailed forecast of exactly what was going to happen – he left nothing out – so this request coming right after that really is nothing short of staggering.
Staggering, yes, but not a total surprise. The concept of a royal, worldly, David-like Messiah was in their DNA. A Messiah who was going to sweep away the Romans and re-establish Israel had been the hope of their people for hundreds of years. When Jesus said that, after three days, the Son of Man would rise again, it’s not surprising that they would gloss over the negative words of betrayal, torture, and death, and focus on that glorious conclusion. “That’s more like it! That’s what we call greatness!” You can almost hear them saying that.
A very imperfect analogy might be when your child comes to you and says he or she wants a pet, say a dog. And you ask him or her, “Well, will you take care of that dog?” “Oh, yes, Daddy and Mommy!” “Will you walk that dog every day!” “Yes!” “Will you feed that dog?” “Yes!” “Will you clean up after that dog?” “Yes, yes!” The actually reality of the responsibility of owning and caring for that dog doesn’t dawn on them – all they can think of is having that dog.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” “Yes, Lord!”
“Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” “Yes, Lord!”
Give us the glory now! Let us be on the royal dais with you, at your right and left hands! Let us, please let us, have that greatness!
I think that, somewhere inside us, we cringe a little bit when we hear this passage. We know James and John. At times, we are James and John. Though we might give it different names, though we might have the best intentions, we, too, want that sense of greatness.
Have you ever seen the movie “Havana” with Robert Redford and Lena Olin? It came out in 1990 and deals with an American gambler named Jack Weil (Redford) trying to set up a high-stakes poker game in Havana during the last week of December 1958 – just before the Cuban Revolution brings Castro to power. There’s a scene in the film where Weil is at dinner with an aristocratic Cuban revolutionary, and the conversation turns not surprisingly to gambling, mixed a bit with politics.
Weil says, “I know politicians. I play cards with them. I love to, because they’re easy to beat. It’s the only place an ordinary man can beat a politician.”
“Why are they easy to beat?”
“Because sometimes it’s smarter to lose with a winning hand so you can win later with a losing one. See? And politicians never can quite believe that, ‘cause they want the power now.”
“Please, Daddy, I want that dog now!”
“Please, Jesus, we want the greatness, the glory, now!”
That is the human condition. But Jesus tells James and John that God’s Kingdom just doesn’t work like that. Every attempt to achieve greatness just for oneself is ultimately doomed.
Instead, Jesus lays out – again – what it means to be his follower: And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
Jesus turns our understanding of the world upside down. What he’s all about can be called “servant leadership.”
But just what is “servant leadership,” exactly?
The leadership consultant Skip Prichard identifies 9 qualities of the servant leader. Among these qualities are developing trust, helping others with life issues, encouraging others, thinking in terms of “you,” and not “me” – but I think the most important quality on his list is this one: A servant leader acts with humility.
And that was the one quality James and John lacked the most. William Barclay writes that James and John may have been a bit better off than some of the other disciples – we read in Mark 1:20 that their father was well enough off to be able to hire servants. Maybe they thought that they were entitled because of their social position to being part of Jesus’ executive committee. Humility didn’t factor into their calculations.
But servant leadership, which Jesus exemplified, is, to put it simply, the art of putting others before yourself, of respecting others, of valuing others, not for what they can do for you, but for who they are. In short, it is living out the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The standards of greatness in God’s Kingdom are vastly different that the standards of greatness in the kingdoms of the world. “In the kingdom of Jesus that standard [is] that of service. Greatness consist[s] not in the reducing of others to one’s service, but in reducing oneself to their service. The test [is] not what service can I extract [from another]?, but. What service can I give?”
This is by no means as radical an idea as we might think. Businesses large and small rely on service to others as their stock in trade. Think of the number of times in any given day you hear the word “service” mentioned in a commercial or read it in an ad. The hotel industry would collapse overnight if customer service were not the lynchpin of their business model.
The truth that Jesus proclaimed with his words and in his actions is our lives will only be truly happy and prosperous when we are filled with the desire to put into it more than we take out of it.
Barclay quotes from a poem called “Mary’s Son” by Rudyard Kipling – it goes as follows:
If you stop to find out what your wages will be
And how they will clothe and feed you,
Willie, my son, don’t you go to the Sea,
For the Sea will never need you.
If you ask for the reason of every command,
And argue with people about you,
Willie, my son, don’t you go on the Land,
For the Land will do better without you.
If you stop to consider the work that you’ve done
And to boast what your labour is worth, dear,
Angels may come for you, Willie, my son.
But you’ll never be wanted on earth, dear!
At the end of the day, when we go about living out our Christian life, the key thing to remember is what Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”
We need to be clear just what our intentions are – as I said that the beginning of this sermon, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it!” If our hearts are in the right place, and we follow Jesus’ example, we cannot help but make the world we live in a better place!
And that really is what it’s all about!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Barclay, William, The Gospel of Mark, The New Daily Study Bible, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, © The William Barclay Estate, 1975, 2001, pp. 298-99, adapted