Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
If you spend enough time reading the Bible, one of the things that you might figure out pretty quickly is that the Bible has a sense of humor. I know that seems like an oxymoron: humor and the Bible, really? Granted, finding humor in the Bible isn’t always easy, and looking for it sometimes does seem to resemble searching for a needle in a haystack, but it is there for the patient reader.
Today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark introduces us to one such humorous moment. To provide a bit of context: the disciples are walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem. This will be the last time Jesus enters the city – his crucifixion is drawing near. In any case, they are walking toward Jerusalem and two of the disciples, James and John, who were close with Jesus, say “Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” That’s a rather bold ask, in my opinion. I can’t think of anyone, especially God, whose response to me if I said that wouldn’t be a slap to my face, and that’s if their being polite. Jesus has some patience with this strange request, and replies, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And here is where they ask for a position of prestige and honor at Jesus’ left and right side.
Why is this funny? It’s humorous because immediately before this incident, like the paragraph right before, Jesus says this to the disciples “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 it’s like James and John didn’t hear any of that! When they ask for a position of honor next to Jesus, it’s like they are requesting honor and recognition after Jesus goes through all the suffering. “Jesus, after you go through all that horrible stuff, which we’re not really interested in doing, can we sort of slide in next to you in heaven have a good seat there close to you?”
I love how this story presents these two disciples in such an unflattering light. Their desire for cheap honor and prestige is just so human, right? Our brains seem to be wired to find the easiest path to dealing with adversity – it’s like genetically we are hard wired to prefer the path of least resistance. And while that might get us to where we want to go quickly, and we might even arrive at where we want to be, it’s not always the best path.
When I think of the most hard won, valuable, and relevant lessons I have learned in life – none of them came easily to me. The most important things that I have learned in life, and am still learning – have taken me years to learn, because I am a slow, and stubborn learner.
Jesus’ response to James and John is right on point – he basically tells them that they have no idea what they are asking, and they really don’t. James and John have fallen suspect to the very real human desire for praise, honor, and recognition, at no cost. While that might what our culture tells us we should want, it is not what Jesus says is most important.
Instead of honor praise and recognition, Jesus advocates a completely different way. He simply says to take up your cross and follow him. To deny the very human need for honor, power, and status. That James and John struggled with this, and that we struggle with it today, is a reminder of what a difficult task this reversal of values is.
When I was in college, I felt certain that I would avoid the predictable rat race of working hard to get a job so I could get a promotion so I could get more recognition and honor, so I could work harder to get a better job, so I could get a better promotion, so I could get even more recognition and honor. I tricked myself into thinking I wasn’t on that path, but in truth, I was. Thankfully I woke up and realized that my selfish desires were all a product of my ego, running rampant. My ego wanted recognition and honor, and what I learned was when I got what my ego wanted, it had a narcotic effect. I got “high.” I was willing to sacrifice so much just to win the approval, recognition, and honor of others. But the feeling never lasted.
So I would repeat the cycle, working harder, sacrificing more, to get the recognition and honor. But it was never as good as the first time. So I would try to work harder, sacrifice even more, to get the recognition and honor I so desired. But it was never enough and it would never be enough, and if what I’ve just described sounds close to a definition of insanity to you, you would be correct. My problem was that I knew cognitively that I was loved by God, but I didn’t believe it with my heart. So I sought approval and honor anywhere I could find it, until finally I realized that being loved by God was the only thing that could give me what I needed. Nothing else. Not honor, not praise, not recognition. All of that is irrelevant when compared to God’s unceasing and unconditional love.
We don’t need to be at Christ’s left or right side, we don’t need the recognition or the approval of others. The recognition of God’s eternal love is, and will always be, enough. AMEN.