Sunday, October 21, 2012

Priorities & Ambitions

Whoever’s in charge of picking the Episcopal lessons for this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10:35-45) missed three verses (vv. 32-34) which are rather important for understanding the whole dynamic of what’s going on between Jesus and the disciples: “32They 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, 33saying, ‘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; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’” 

This is the third time that Mark shows Jesus explaining to the disciples the destiny and meaning of his mission, and three times the disciples clearly don’t “get it”. His predictions are really the summary of Mark’s Gospel as Mark knows it.  First, Peter tries to hush Jesus up for speaking about suffering and being killed, but Jesus rebukes Peter and tries to set his and the disciples’ thinking straight.  Then on the road to Capernaum Jesus notices a little argument going on among them, and later confronts them, only to find out that they’ve been bickering about who’s “the greatest”. So, Jesus uses a visual aid in the form of a little child on his lap: a symbol of one who is totally helpless and dispossessed, and how this is the kind of simplicity they’re to imitate as God’s servants, even as he will on the Cross.  But their only response is to change the subject and to rant about someone who was also preaching in Jesus’ name, and whom they tried to stop “because he was not following us”.  And now, after marching them in single-file on the road, according to seniority, as was the custom in those days, the young “Sons of Thunder”, James and John, have the audacity to ignore what Jesus has been saying and to initiate a power grab: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask you.” How would you have reacted, had you been there??

Stephen B. Chapman, Old Testament professor at Duke University has commented very pointedly on this text: “James and John McZebedee matriculated at my seminary again this fall. The "Sons of Entitlement," I call them. They are usually -- but not always -- young and white in addition to being male. They have typically grown up in the church, attended Christian colleges and majored in religion. They like to refer to their mental index of Theologians Worth Reading and readily scoff at those theologians they have not read (and so are not worth reading). They patronize second-career students, female students, minority students and those ministerial students who are without apparent academic ambitions. Their fathers are frequently pastors. It is possible, these Sons of Entitlement piously concede in candid moments, that God may be calling them to become professors or bishops. They are rather easy to dislike...Surely [Jesus] must realize that Zebedee’s boys need to straighten out their values and goals. After all, their primary concern is where they will sit in glory, not whether they can actively pursue a ministry or earn rightful acclaim.” (From “Sons of Entitlement (Mark 10:35-45)” in The Christian Century, October 17, 2006, p. 20)
They, and their fellow disciples too, just could not fathom that the meaning of discipleship is service, not privilege, and that Jesus is the exemplar of such service.  It was incomprehensible to them that those who aspire to greatness must be servants, and that those who would be “number one” must becomes slaves.  Not a popular notion, in any generation! And surely Mark’s account would have been influenced by his own firsthand experience of such leadership struggles within his and other early Christian communities. 
I ran across a story from the early years of our country which deals with the same issue that Mark raises.  During the American Revolutionary War a company of soldiers under the command of a captain was building a fort out of a pile of heavy logs. While wrestling with a log which was to form the capstone and was really too heavy for the men to handle, the captain kept yelling at his men "heave it up", while he himself stood by with his hands on his hips. Suddenly a stranger in everyday clothing rode up on horseback, and seeing the soldiers sweating and struggling with the log, he stopped and asked the captain why he wasn’t helping his men. "I am an OFFICER!" was the reply. With that the stranger leapt off his horse, took off his coat, and helped the men put the heavy log in place. As he was about to ride away, the stranger said to the captain, "Next time you need help, just call on me. My name is George Washington and I am Commander in Chief of the United States Army!"
Even in the way he replied to James’ and John’s rude and self-interested request, Jesus modeled servant ministry.  “What is it you want me to do for you?” Mark tells us that the other disciples’ reaction to the two was far less tolerant: “...they began to be angry”. Jesus makes it clear that it’s not his calling to grant favors or to give people preferential treatment.  “ 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...” Jesus was progressively becoming aware that His Father was leading Jesus to the fulfillment of an important plan, that he was being led toward the Holy City, Jerusalem, and that this would culminate in much suffering and ultimately, his own death.  He was trying desperately to convey this to the disciples: first, to prepare them for the reality, and second, to motivate them to follow his example as God’s servant.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews (5:1-10), in retrospect, comments on that example: Jesus, God’s Son and Servant, “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,...and he was heard because of his reverent submission...he learned obedience through what he suffered...and...became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him...”  The word “obedience” comes from the Latin, ob + audire = to really listen: not just to hear words, but to listen and to act on what one hears.
Jesus reminds James and John that, regardless of what position they eventually attain, they, as his followers, will inevitably  suffer, perhaps even die, in imitation of their Master.  That’s the meaning of drinking the cup and being baptized with Jesus‘ baptism.  This takes on special meaning when you and I realize that Mark, writing this account many years after this discussion, already knew that James had died at the hands of Herod Agrippa.  
Further, Jesus reminds the whole group that they live in a society where the recognized rulers use their authority to “lord it over” others, and where the “great ones are tyrants”.  “But it is not so among you,” Jesus says.  In the circle of God’s reign, in the community of believers, the great one must be a servant and the one who covets first place must be a slave -- of all.  “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve...” Luke’s version of this quotation adds: “...For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves...
So, where does this leave you & me??  Perhaps we can begin to determine this for ourselves by thinking about some questions:
  1. What is really primary for me in my life, and especially in my relationship to Jesus? What is it that I value above all else? What is really worthy of my expending energy for?         
Honestly, the kind of self-giving service that Jesus holds out to the disciples and to us doesn’t come easily or naturally to most of us.  If that’s true of me, how am I dealing with it? What would have to change if I were willing to accept Jesus’ ministry of serving rather than being served as the model for my own ministry with others?
     2.  A second set of questions we might think about concerns my own ambitions and my reaction to others’ ambitions. Perhaps the greater sin in the church, in my family or social circle, in my parish, is not misplaced ambition, but complacency and lack of ambition altogether. 
Where ambition exists, it, at least, can be redirected and purified. But where it’s entirely absent, mediocrity sets in, the status quo hardens, and vestries and parishioners, husbands and wives and children can end up debating endlessly about methods and procedures. Perhaps we too easily demonize James and John, and others, for being so ambitious.  Could it be that their act of stepping forward matters more to Jesus than their immediate reasons for doing so? Is it possible that even we might learn to engage people who seem to be “Sons/Daughters of Entitlement” with respect and love, as Jesus did, while helping them and ourselves to refocus their/our ambition on true servanthood and its high demands?
Henry Nouwen, in his book The Wounded Healer, notes: The healer is not a person in perfect health, but a sick person as well.  The difference is that the healer would bind up his own wounds long enough to minister to others.  That's all any of us can do in the Church because we are all wounded healers.”     


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