Anglican Church of Canada
October 21st, 2018 Proper 29
Again we hear the story of James and John and their inappropriate, pushy request to be Jesus’s right and left hand men, when he comes to rule in glory. It is, I think, a familiar story; it’s a story that goes right to the core of what Jesus’s gospel teachings are all about, an important and memorable story that shows us what is at stake in a pretty obvious way.
They are nothing if not obvious, these two. There is something almost cartoonish about their request. It seems so inappropriate and tone-deaf; coming right after Jesus tells them about the suffering and death that awaits him. It is shameless and presumptuous. It sounds quite simply so childish. Matthew found it so embarrassing that he changes Mark’s story when he comes to write his gospel: he makes it their mother who makes the request of Jesus, and turns her into some stereotype of the pushy Jewish mother. This is unfair. James and John have to own this. It is completely a young man sort of thing to do: they are the Jesus bros, filled with cocky self-assurance, with something one can only call a sense of entitlement. They may be Galilean fishermen, but sure they’re ready to step up and rule the world.
Or maybe we need to cut them some slack. Maybe it’s fear that is driving their request. They have just heard Jesus talking – for the third time! – about the suffering and death that awaits him. Of course they are disturbed by this crazy talk, of course they need to steer things back to the happier, healthier picture of triumph and glory. They are afraid, and when we are afraid we sometimes say things that are inappropriate. So perhaps we shouldn’t judge them so harshly. Nor their fellow disciples, either, who are angry with them for trying to steal ahead – they too are anxious, and that can make us appear not at our best.
In any case, Jesus takes this as a teaching moment. He responds by placing the disciples’ behaviour in the context where it belongs. “You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” What Jesus is talking about here is something one theologian has called the domination system. It’s the way of the world, in the first century and the twenty-first, and every century in between: human history is shaped by this insatiable drive for power, the human need to get to the top and lord it over others. That is what drives the machine of far-off Rome; but that is also what is driving the disciples. They are products of the world they grew up in, as are we all, and they have taken on its values and are living out this same logic in the way they behave with one another.
So we shouldn’t be so judgmental of James and John. As cartoonish as they appear, they are simply acting out something that is inside of us. If there is such a thing as original sin, then I think it must look like this: that tendency that runs through our culture to want to dominate others, to put our own interests first, to look out for number one. That is rooted in something even deeper: the assumption that I am more important than anyone else. It’s natural, isn’t it, it’s the perspective each one of us brings into the world. From our point of view, each one of us sees themselves as the most important person in the world; each of us is the centre of our own universe. As we grow from children into adults, we learn to recognize, at least in the abstract, that everyone is equally important, that other people’s interests and feelings shouldn’t be disregarded. Occasionally, with the people we most fully love, our spouses perhaps and our children, we can actually come to see them as more important than ourselves, we can actually taste what self-sacrificial love is like. But for most of the world, well, other people don’t matter as much as we do – especially the people who are different than we are. And so we can slip so easily into the domination system, into wanting to hold onto the advantages we may have over others.
It is a natural human perspective; but from God’s perspective, it looks different: God loves each human being fully and equally. And Jesus came to offer an alternative: “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.”
And he came not just to preach this, but to live it, to model what self-sacrificial love can look like: to give his life a ransom for many. Jesus takes it to its logical extreme, the recognition that no one life is more important than another: if I have truly internalized this truth, then I should be willing to give my life to save another. Greater love has no one, than to give up his life for his friends. I don’t know about you, but my love for humanity in general hasn’t quite reached that point. But Jesus’s did, and his willingness to offer his life made it a ransom for many. A “ransom”, in the original Greek, was the payment that needed to be made to redeem a slave. If someone had gotten so deeply into debt that they had to declare bankruptcy, which in those days meant selling yourself into slavery, then the ransom was what would need to be paid to set you free again. Jesus’s free giving of his own life is the ransom that sets us free from the domination system, from the impulse to put ourselves first and lord it over others.
We need to be careful here. The message to stop trying to lord it over others was definitely what our bros, James and John, needed to hear. It is what so many in our society need to hear, as they let self-interest drive the vision of the common good into the ground. To some extent, we all need to hear it and make it our own, because the domination system has its claws in each of us.
But the domination system has its flip side. It doesn’t just teach us to want to lord it over others; it also teaches huge numbers of people that they ought to be dominated, that they don’t matter. Women, especially, have often gotten that end of the message: you should be self-sacrificing, because you’re not as important as other people. Against that background, Jesus’s message is so easily misunderstood as reinforcing that kind of self-hatred. I remember reading about one woman’s testimony in a Bible study: I just try to be humble, to make myself so small, that maybe I can slip under the door into heaven.” The assumption, of course, is that she has to sneak into heaven, because Jesus would never let her in if he saw her, she is so fundamentally unlovable. How sad this story, that this is how someone has heard the gospel. When Jesus talks about serving others, he doesn’t mean we should humiliate ourselves, and think of ourselves as less than others: he is envisaging a community of equals serving one another in generous love. He is not teaching us to hate ourselves; he is teaching us to look on everyone as equally beloved by God, our neighbour, our stranger, ourselves. Loving others as ourselves does not mean hating ourselves.
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert makes the comment that loving ourselves can be hard. Sometimes the humility and self-critique and even self-loathing can be so strong, too much to ask. So she says she has found it helpful to settle for a more modest sounding goal: to be a better friend to herself. Maybe that is helpful, because it is saying the same thing in a way that doesn’t sound conceited. Be a better friend to yourself. And what does a good friend do? A good friend is kind; a good friend forgives your mistakes; a good friend looks out for your best interests; a good friend encourages you to be the best you can be. Perhaps we could manage that.
There is a real irony in what our bros are asking of Jesus, because they really have no idea what it is they are asking. They want to sit on his right and left hand when he comes into his glory: well, in the gospel’s understanding, Jesus came into his glory on the cross, and on his left and right were the two thieves who were crucified alongside of him. Jesus asks if they can drink his cup, and be baptized with his baptism, and they assure him they can. But the cup that he has to drink is the bitter cup that he prayed in Gethsemane might pass from him, the cup of a cruel death he needed to drain to the dregs; and the baptism he would undergo was the baptism of his death. These poor boobies have no idea what they are asking for. But then, maybe we don’t either, when we sign up to follow Jesus.
The great preacher Fred Craddock has a wonderful sermon where he talks about giving his life to Jesus. How when he was young, that’s all he wanted to do, to make the grand heroic gesture, to write the million dollar cheque. And how frustrated he felt, as an idealistic young man, that there didn’t seem to be many opportunities to make that grand gesture in the small town he grew up in.
But over the course of his life, he says, he has come to realize that God has accepted his offer – but just not in the way he expected. God has allowed him to give his life, but not by handing over that one big million dollar cheque. Rather, God has claimed that offer a little bit every day of his life. Every day he has found himself having to write a cheque for another installment on his promised sacrifice: forty-three cents here, a dollar sixty-five there. And so on, day after day, the little acts of service and sacrifice and kindness and selflessness we are called to. That is what a Christian life looks like for most of us. Not the grand sacrifice James and John might boast of, but the daily discipline of serving God by serving others.
“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.”