St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Job 38.1-7,34-41; Psalm 104.1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45
In last week’s sermon we considered the story of the man who ran up to Jesus, knelt before him, and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. As he had kept the commandments pertaining to relationships with others, Jesus told him to go, sell his possessions, and give the money to the poor. He was shocked and went away grieving. His possessions were the one thing standing in the way of his possessing a right relationship with God, for his possessions were his idol. His possessions occupied God’s rightful place. We noted Jesus’ comments on the difficulty, the near impossibility, of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven. After hearing this, Peter said, “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10.28; NRSV). Jesus then assured his disciples that they would receive a one-hundred-fold return in this life, and eternal life in the age to come.
Today’s reading begins with James’ and John’s request that Jesus do whatever they asked of him – to grant them the right to sit one at his right and one at his left when he comes into his glory. Jesus told them they knew not what they were asking.
It might have helped if our reading had picked up immediately following last week’s reading, with verse 32, rather than starting at verse 35. Let’s consider the omitted verses:
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “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; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again”(Mark 10.32-34; NRSV).
This was the third time Jesus shared what lay ahead.
In the first instance, Mark 8.31-33, Jesus taught “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (NRSV). What was their reaction? Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Jesus then rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Vs. 33; NRSV).
In the second instance, as they continued their journey to Jerusalem and passed through Galilee, Jesus taught the disciples saying, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9.31; NRSV). This instance includes the element of betrayal. What was their reaction? Mark tells us the disciples did not understand but were afraid to ask Jesus any questions. But as they continued their journey to Jerusalem, the disciples began to argue as to who among them was greatest. Jesus then advised the disciples: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To drive the point home with an object lesson, Jesus placed a child in their midst, took the child in his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9.33-37).
In the third instance Jesus’ description of what lay ahead was even more specific: “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; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (loc. cit.). The accounts became increasingly specific, more detailed. All three accounts mention that Jesus will “rise again.”
Given the prevalent Messianic understanding and expectation of a king which would overthrow Roman rule and establish the kingdom of God, James and John may have been expecting Jesus to establish a post-resurrection worldly reign and kingdom. Perhaps they were thinking, “After all that messy stuff is completed, Jesus will come into his glory. Wouldn’t it be great if one of us could sit on his right and one of us on his left?” As with Peter, their mind was on human things. Jesus told James and John they did not know what they were asking. He asked if they could drink the cup he is about to drink or be baptized with his baptism. They answered, “We are able.” Jesus replied, “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” (Mark 10.39-40; NRSV).
When the other disciples heard this, they were upset! Jesus called them together and reminded them of the practices of the Gentile rulers who lorded their power over their subjects. Their “great” rulers were tyrannical. Then Jesus said, “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 10.43-45; NRSV). Remember, shortly before, Jesus stressed this point when he chided the disciples for arguing as to who would be greatest.
James and John did not understand how Jesus was to be glorified. In Luke’s gospel, following Jesus triumphal entry, we are told that some Greeks told Philip they wished to see Jesus. Philip in turn told Andrew, and together they went and told Jesus. Note Jesus’ answer:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor (Luke 12.23-26; NRSV).
Jesus was glorified on the cross. Two thieves occupied the places of honor to his right and left.
Aren’t we just like Peter, James, and John? We might be critical of James and John for asking such a question, but as John Pilch (http://liturgy.slu.edu/29OrdB102118/theword_cultural.html) has observed, to fully understand their action, we need to remember that this is an honor-based society. Furthermore, Matthew tells us it was the mother of James and John who knelt before Jesus and asked that her sons would sit on Jesus’ right and left (20.20-21). In an honor-based society, it is only natural that James and John seek to enhance their own honor even if the other disciples were to be somewhat upset. They were merely looking out for #1!
Like Peter, it is so easy to set our minds on human things rather than divine things. Like James and John, it is so natural to seek glory and honor. Yet Jesus tells us these ways are mistaken, for Jesus’ way is not the way of the world. Jesus’ way is to be a servant – to serve others out of love for God and our neighbor.
The way of the world tells us to seek our own glory, but as the author of Hebrews wrote, Jesus did not seek to glorify himself through becoming a high priest of the order of Melchizedek – Jesus was appointed high priest: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (5.8-10). Let us never forget that we worship and serve one who joins us in our suffering. What a source of eternal salvation! Amen.