PROPER 24, B
Sometimes it is very frustrating that we don’t read the Gospels straight through in the lectionary. I mean, you can read today’s Gospel story and get that James and John are behaving in very undisciple-like ways, trying to trick Jesus into saying yes before they say what they want. But the full extent of their going astray is only revealed when we look at what has come before, some of which has not been read in this lectionary series.
The whole central part of Mark’s Gospel is bracketed by two healing stories in which Jesus heals blind men. Between these are other healing stories, but also the three times when Jesus tells his disciples very plainly what is going to happen to him.
The first time he does this, Peter rebukes him and Jesus says to Peter, “Get thee behind me Satan.” The second time he does this, we are told the disciples are afraid to ask him anything. And then we find out that on the way they were arguing about who was the greatest among them.
The third time comes immediately before today’s reading. “Jesus took the twelve aside and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying. . . 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 mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.
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.’ “ Great response, isn’t it?
I have talked before about how the disciples just don’t get it, that they are so caught up in their own expectations of the Messiah that they can’t hear what Jesus tells them or are totally in denial.
Today, let’s consider another possibility. Maybe what they hear just scares them so much they can’t face it. Or maybe that fear drives them to seek some source of security. Fear is evident in Peter’s rebuking of Jesus. Death is not the end of the story any of the disciples are looking for. Both the second and third episode actually say the disciples are afraid.
Whether we see the disciples as sort of bumbling or as frightened, we can still sympathize with them. They are just like us! What do we do when we are afraid? Just take a look at what happened after 9/11. The rush to create some sense of “security” was fast and furious, and honestly without much thought.
Might that explain James and John immediately seeking some sort of security for their future? It seems a very human thing to do; to react to fear of the future by seeking some form of self-protection. They also do this without the rest of the group, as though there might not be enough glory to go around. And the others get angry because they see the behavior of James and John as an effort to edge them out.
Again, how human is this? As David Lose said on Working Preacher.org this week, “When we feel under attack, or afraid, or anxious, isn’t the temptation always to move toward self-preservation, give into our fears about scarcity, and see our companions as rivals rather than friends?”
He goes on to offer two reasons why this happens; first that as humans we are just insecure enough to believe that there is not enough to go around, money, love, whatever. And this inclines us to look after ourselves instead of our neighbors. Second, we have an entire culture that plays on our insecurity by claiming that glory is found in possessions, power, wealth, or fame. In our culture movie stars and athletes are paid way more than nurses, schoolteachers, professors, or pastors.
This is really tough to overcome. On the other hand, most of us who live long enough have found that having stuff doesn’t make us any happier, at least if we’ve never suffered extreme poverty. I suspect that each of us have also had at least some moments in our lives when we have experienced the truth of Jesus’s teaching in this story.
I know that the volunteers at Hospice always talk about how much more they have received than they have given. And anyone who has served others has known this joy, whether as a Mom or Dad, or helping a friend in need, or volunteering in any number of ways. This joy does not come just from the gratitude of those we have helped, but more from “our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, and courage.” This is the sort of glory that Jesus offers us when we follow his way of being a servant to others. He contrasts the way of the world, where the rulers lord it over their subjects and are tyrants, to the way of the Kingdom, where the greatest is the servant of all.
Those of us who have spent time with our Bishop Brian are aware of the extent to which he embodies this teaching in ways we have not necessarily been used to. Every time we see him, he asks what he can do for us, and seldom, if ever, says anything about what we must do for him, or because he says so.
Many Christians in modern culture would tend to focus most on the last line of this lesson, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The word ‘ransom’ means to buy back. Again let me quote from David Lose. “I have a hunch that the understanding the second half of that verse correctly rests in taking the first half more seriously. Maybe Jesus “buys us back” by showing us a way out of the devastating cycle of looking for glory, joy, and peace on the world’s terms by teaching and showing us how to receive by giving, how to lead by serving, and how to find our lives by losing them for the sake of the people around us that God loves so much.”
And one last set of comments to think about in the week ahead. These come from Charles Campbell writing in the commentary called Feasting on the Word. He agrees with Lose that fear breeds a desire for security, but goes on to suggest this:
“The central liturgical practices of the church (meaning baptism and eucharist) challenge all fear-driven quests for security and call the church into the alternative way of Jesus – the way of servanthood.” He goes on to describe that way as the antithesis of the Domination System (the term applied by Walter Wink to the way of the world).
The Domination System is marked by power over others, control of others, ranking of social orders and other forms of hierarchy, the division of winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, those who have honor and those who have shame.
In offering us a different way, the way of servanthood, Jesus sets us free from that system of domination. He ransoms us from allegiance to that system and from the fear and the insecurity that system thrives on.
We may not always be successful in choosing the way of Jesus over the way of the world, any more than the disciples were always successful, but we have before us this image of that way, the opportunity to choose that way, and a loving community to help us along that way. I hope that I can speak for all of us when I say, “We have decided to follow Jesus!” AMEN