Today’s gospel passage (Mark 10.35-45) begins simply enough. James and John, two of the disciples, approach Jesus asking for a favour. This is not unusual; throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus is often approached by people seeking help. However, on this occasion, these two disciples ask for something that betrays their origins. They are men who have lived their whole lives in a world very different from the kingdom of God. The values of their society, taught and reinforced systemically, present a concern and an opportunity for some powerful teaching from Jesus, which is precisely what happens over these ten verses.
James and John approach Jesus and ask if he will promise them the places of greatest prestige in the kingdom of God: To sit at Jesus’s own right and left hands. Jesus has assured his followers time and again that they will know glory and peace and blessings unending in God’s kingdom. This part of the discussion with followers is always enthusiastic and keenly interesting. The part that follows, as here with James and John, is the part where things start to get sticky for many people. The costly path toward that glory is not easy, nor simple. It is to discern and follow God’s will, rather than one’s own, and this often leads us to places and actions that we might not otherwise consider.
James and John probably recognized quickly, when Jesus began to explain why he would not grant their request, that making demands of God is a mistake. They might have asked Jesus “Will we be at your hand in God’s kingdom?” Or something similar. An open-spirited question—born of a desire, certainly—but that still left room for God to speak and act according to God’s wisdom. Instead, James and John have offered a rather narrow request, leaving Jesus with no option but to deny them.
On hearing Jesus’s denial of their request the other ten disciples immediately take James and John to task. Upset with their presumption and their clever attempt to politick into the coming kingdom, an argument ensues. This is understandable, both from the point of view of the decade of disciples and from that of James and John. We have seen that Peter is moving into a place of leadership among the disciples. He has many conversations with Jesus—including his famous rebuke when Jesus first reveals the Passion as his fate—and that the brothers James and John are also being drawn into an inner circle. After all, it was Peter, James, and John who were chosen to ascend the mountain and witness the Transfiguration.
Like contestants on a modern reality game show, James and John begin to do the math and realize that they are in second place to Peter. In an effort to better their position, they approach Jesus with this request, that they be granted places of special favour in the glorious eternity they will spend with their master, doing an end-run around Peter and trying to capture first place for themselves. This is upsetting to the other disciples for obvious reasons. If discipleship is a game of winning Jesus’s favour—it is certainly not—then James and John are cheating by asking for it outright and not earning it. If discipleship is a team sport—which it is—then James and John are defeating the spirit of the thing by trying to collect promises of glory for themselves.
James and John have spent their entire lives in a society that rewards such ambition. Those who see opportunity and grasp it before others are those who get ahead in life. They end up with more land, more business, more money, more advantageous spouses, all the hallmarks of human success. Even if that success comes at the expense of other people, like their fellow disciples. James and John have been soaked their whole lives in systemic exploitation of others: an economy and social structure that rewards self-interest over the welfare of neighbours. (This should sound very familiar to twenty-first century Christians.)
In response to their request for a share in his glory, Jesus asks if James and John are able to drink the cup he must drink and undergo the baptism he must suffer. The enterprising disciples, without understanding what this means, assure him that they can. Like signing off the user agreement on a new app without having read it, James and John agree to share in the Passion of Christ. The cup which Jesus drinks willingly is his Crucifixion and the baptism is death, into which he sinks completely, immersed, and emerging again only three days later. James and John will both suffer martyrdom after Pentecost, making crystal clear their faith and their path to heavenly glory, but this is surely not what they were anticipating in this conversation.
In his teaching against those who presume glory that is not theirs, Jesus expands his view from James and John to the entire political system of his day. The gentile rulers who “lord it over” their subjects. Who think they have real power and are in control. These will have no status, no power, no control in the kingdom of God. In this one, short sentence, Jesus has condemned an entire political philosophy. The same one which has caused the confusion of priorities in James and John. All imperial notions, all exploitation, all slavery, all colonialism, are condemned as having no future in God’s kingdom. “Those who are supposed to rule” will learn who the true ruler is and find their illusions shattered; the proud scattered in the imagination of their hearts.
This condemnation quickly applies to industry as well as politics. When employers lord their status over the labourers and treat employees as commodities rather than as people and partners in their work together, Jesus sees no good there. Today we hear complaints from employers about a “labour shortage” while at the same time we hear increasing numbers of workers complaining about the lack of jobs which pay a living wage. We hear news of multiple unions holding referendums of their members as to whether striking is the next most reasonable step. In many corners, those in leadership seem to have lost the confidence of those they lead through exploitation for personal gain.
To be clear, it is of this selfishness, these inherited systems of exploitation that encourage greed and hoarding in which so many of the evils of this world have their roots. Every time we see the choking weeds of racism, misogyny, homophobia, slavery, human trafficking, addiction, xenophobia, their roots are found in the desire of some to deny the humanity of their neighbours and exploit them—to wring them dry of labour and worth—in the pursuit of building up their own fortunes. This is the fruit of sin. This is not the kingdom of God and it is not the way of Jesus.
Jesus is a great leader, like so many politicians and captains of industry. But rather than expecting to be served, Jesus turns the system on its head—just as his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary prophesied in the Magnificat—and expects to serve. Jesus acts and does so for the benefit of his family, his friends, and his neighbours. Jesus’s neighbours include all of humanity, remember. This is the example that Jesus’s followers are intended to emulate, both his disciples in the first century and those of us who are his mystical body today.
Instead of seeking personal gain at the expense of others, we are called to speak out on behalf of the exploited, to find the missing and lost, to free the imprisoned, and call out abuses of power. We will find ourselves in conflict with the powers of this world and may run the risk of reprisals, but we do so in good company: beside martyrs like Peter, James, and John and in the shadow of Jesus’s own cross. We are called to serve, to heal, to reconcile. To drink the cup and undergo the baptism and to scandalize the powers of this world that “suppose to rule” with a foolish generosity of love and service that make sense only to those who know the freedom of God’s love.
We are called to follow Jesus’s example and go into the world serving others before ourselves. To give of our own food to those who are hungry; to give of our own clothes to those who are cold; to give of our time and wisdom to teach those who desire to learn; to give of our compassion and our presence to comfort and pray for those who are afflicted, suffering, and imprisoned. We are called to do all of this while the world looks on with, at best, questioning eyes. Why would you do all of this if there is no profit to be made? No benefit to yourselves? At worst, with mockery, derision, and efforts to stop the growth of the kingdom of God.
We answer God’s call to do these things, not for ourselves, but because we sense the kingdom of God close at hand and we know that it grows, soul by soul, heart by heart, with each act of mercy, compassion, kindness, and service. We give of our own belongings, our own wealth, our own selves to accomplish these things because we know that all we have was first given to us by our Lord who was willing to give up life to death on the Cross if it meant that we would come to understand and serve in love.
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.