The capacity for denial is a basic part of our human psyche. It’s a defense mechanism that allows us a little breathing room before we have to deal with the facts. If something absolutely awful is happening, we just refuse to believe it, until we have to. But while this may help us in our grieving process, it can become a problem if we allow or encourage it to persist. The ability of people to deny the existence of global warming is life threatening to the planet. How is it possible for us to deny the facts when the polar ice caps have melted faster in the last 20 years than they have in the past 10,000 years and sea levels are rising at an accelerated rate? Somehow we do. There are those who deny the Holocaust happened. People deny the existence of racial discrimination. People ignore the obvious connection between gun deaths and guns. And of course, when you really need a little light relief, check out the Flat Earth Society. You can find them on the Internet. They may be convinced the world is flat, but they’re not above using technology to promote the idea! Denial. It’s more than a river in Egypt.
In order for us to really “get” the insane nature of what James and John are asking of Jesus in this passage and to fully grasp the depth of their state of denial, we have to realize the context. The context is that Jesus has been telling them for days and even weeks that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. He flat out tells them he will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, who will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. The Gentiles will then mock him, spit on him, scourge him and kill him. Jesus wasn’t at all subtle about this. What is it about human nature that refuses to see what is right in front of us?
James and John truly excelled themselves in the denial department, but we may have done the same. Humans just have an amazing capacity for hearing what they want to hear, and not hearing what they don’t. James, John and Peter were the three insiders among the disciples. They were the leadership team. Interestingly, however, blood is thicker than water, and with James and John being brothers, Peter was neatly excluded in this instance. Besides, it’s not possible to sit 3 on either side of Jesus. There are only two sides.
When we begin today James and John come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Well that’s pretty cheeky right there. But Jesus responds thoughtfully waiting to see where this one is going and says, “What do you want me to do for you?” To which they respond, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
I can picture Jesus uttering a deep sigh. He tells them that they don’t know what they are asking. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” And of course they answer, “We can,” which is absolutely incorrect.
The seating at the right and left hand is not an image we immediately comprehend, but anyone attending an ancient banquet would know that seating was extremely important. The honored guests were closer to the host. The especially honored were seated on either side, and in the case of a ruler, this implied that they were high-level advisors. James and John were picturing Jesus as a king, and their role in the future kingdom. They did not understand that glory could have anything to do with suffering, sacrifice or weakness. And when we picture glory, we don’t think of that either. You all know that I’m not exactly a sports genius, but whenever there is a nail-biting competition and the television cameras show the faces of the winners and the losers, it’s the losers I feel for. They fought as hard as they could, and at the last minute, it was all gone. That, for them, is not glory. And yet Jesus achieved glory for us by enduring the cross. He achieved glory, by losing his life.
Even if we don’t go to the extremes of the Prosperity gospel, or Janice Joplin and ask for a Mercedes Benz, most of our prayers are self-centered and not kingdom centered. And when we’re “me” centered or self-centered, we don’t ask God to give us trials. We certainly don’t want to experience suffering or loss. We all want to skip ahead to the good part. We want things to be easy, not hard! Whoever asks for hard? But sometimes accomplishing God’s will IS hard, and what God wants us to pray for is the strength to do it, not a way to avoid it. James and John just couldn’t allow themselves to see what was really ahead, because it was hard. They wanted to win the Olympics without spending a single day in training. And the image of glory they had was worldly. They had spent their lives at the bottom of the social heap. What would it be like to be at the top? Despite all that they had been through with Jesus, despite all they had seen and done, they were still focused on themselves.
Jesus told them that they would drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism, but anything more was not for him to grant. When the others heard about this conversation they were furious. But they didn’t understand either. Jesus had to spell it out again. Leadership in the kingdom of God is not like leadership in the world. He said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus pointed out that the way the Gentiles ruled was despotic. The NIV describes “those who are regarded as rulers”. The root word for “regarded” is “think,” as in, “people think they are leaders so they are leaders.” It’s not a divine appointment. They have that position due to human belief, and on that basis they proceed to lord it over their subjects as if they were divinely appointed. They bully and over-power any opposition. They do anything necessary to remain in control and to dominate. And in this context, they were quite bloodthirsty in the process. We might think of Syria, and the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is how much of the political world operates even today. It is corrupt, abusive and violent. This is not, however, how leadership operates in the kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom whoever wants to become great must be a servant. The word is diakonos, the word we get “deacon” from. That’s humbling but reasonable. But Jesus pushes it even further, saying, if you want to be first, you must be the slave, or doulos, of all. This is something NO ONE would want to be. A slave had no rights whatsoever.
Jesus goes on to explain that while his example is the one we are to follow, he has a unique role. He said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Only Jesus can serve as a ransom in God’s plan of salvation. “Ransom” is a word found in both the Old and New Testaments, and while we tend to think of it in terms of kidnapping, it was a standard term used for freeing a prisoner or slave. Soldiers taken captive by an opposing army could be ransomed home if their government paid for their freedom. If their government did not care about them, they were either killed or sold on the slave market. If Jesus’ death is a ransom, it is more than an inspiring role model for us. It’s more than just a protest against injustice. It actually does something. A payment has been made and we have been freed, but exactly how this happens he does not explain. This is why we have “theories” of atonement. People might tell you how it’s done as if they know, but no one really understands this mystery. What we have are allegories and images, not a technical manual. Jesus’ death frees people from captivity and oppression and restores us to God’s kingdom. Forgiveness is part of what happens, although that is not the main point here. Here we are talking about the kingdom. We are speaking of God’s ultimate goal of healing and wholeness for the world.
I pray every day for our nation and our leaders. I pray every day for the upcoming election. But I know that even in the best-case scenario, business on this side of heaven will be about self-advancement. Our leaders are me-centered, not God-centered. And even those who enter public service with good intentions are often corrupted and led astray by special interest groups. But if WE serve God because we belong to God, we are free to be a wonderfully subversive element in society. Like yeast working in a loaf we can effect change. We don’t have to do things the way everyone else does them. God our master might place demands on us we never expected, but at the same time because God is our master we are free to do things we never imagined we were capable of doing.
Our calling from God is not to sit back and wait to be served, but to serve. We’re here to help. But belonging to God also has other benefits. A slave can only have one master. We don’t take orders from everyone. We take orders from God. To be a Christian doesn’t mean having a thousand bosses. We are at the beck and call of God who decides where and how we serve. Sometimes this can be downright inconvenient. We may find ourselves in the position of the Good Samaritan, setting our own agenda completely aside because the needs of a stranger are greater than our own. But God never double-books us. We do that. When God calls us to serve it is one thing at a time, and the timing is always perfect. And because God is our master, God also protect us and provides for us. The paradox of the kingdom is that when we acknowledge in our hearts that we are God’s servants, we are of all people the most free. Amen.
4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”