Gospel: Mark 10:35-45
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to 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.” 41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Are you sick of it yet? I’m talking about the political slandering that fills our televisions, our newspapers, our magazines, and our computer screens. [On Facebook,] One group was created in response to another that refused to let the more conservative people have much of a voice. The new group promised to be uncensored, but that seems to have backfired, as it has been inundated with posts, mostly from one person. This person seems always to find the most negative stories and memes possible. Of course, since it is uncensored, there is little that can be done to balance the rhetoric, unless the other side does the same thing. I responded once to that over-zealous poster, urging a reduction of posts that merely disparage. After working through that conversation, the next day I found myself tagged in most of that person’s new contributions. Honestly, isn’t that a great way to encourage someone to stop paying attention to anything you have to share?
The reason I find myself dealing with politics today is the story of the request of James and John from our Gospel reading. Mark was probably the first of our four gospels to be written down, and it’s likely that Matthew and Luke used it as a source, because many of the stories are included in all three. Luke avoided this one, however, and Matthew changed it. Matthew said it was their mother who asked Jesus for places of honor for her sons—what mother wouldn’t?
Mark, though, places the responsibility for the asking squarely on the shoulders of James and John. Their mother receives none of the blame for their temerity. They want power. They want authority. They want to be the hands of the king! There’d be plenty of room for the rest of the disciples, but they’d be closest. They’d have the closest contact to Jesus, the most power, and the most respect.
When Jesus says you don’t know what you’re asking, I can’t help but remember what I thought when I was a kid. I heard this story and I thought James and John were asking for them to be divided as Jesus speaks of dividing the sheep from the goats in another story. I thought they were asking for one of them to be condemned!
No, though, they were asking for power. They were craving what too many in this world crave today. Too many crave power not in order to serve, but power to control. Jesus says it right here in Mark’s Gospel, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”
Years ago we had a minority leader who spoke quite well concerning the issues of the day. I remember thinking him very wise. Then his party came into the majority, and he became the majority leader. Suddenly, compromise seemed to be missing from his being. No longer did he sound wise. Rather, I thought he’d become foolishly stubborn. It made me sad to lose what I’d come to respect.
On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, desiring a document he needed for his upcoming marriage. He never came out. He died inside the consulate, a place that was supposed to be safe. Whether it was the result of a fistfight, as they claim, or an execution, as is feared, is not clear. What is clear to me is that political skirmishes can have dire consequences.
When politics means power, the people suffer. That’s what Jesus was saying.
Then Jesus said there’s a better way. Actually what he said was that people in politics often behave badly, they lord it over those for whom they are supposed to care. The better way, Jesus advises, is to serve. If you want to be first, you must be slave of all, he said.
Then Jesus, as you know, became the prime example, serving us all by dying in our place, promising life to us.
We have had people in politics that serve well. We have had people in power who have worked diligently to use their power for the sake of those with little power in this world.
When I attended the community organizing training last year, I learned many things. One was a redefinition of self-interest. I’d always seen self-interest in a negative way, in the way John and James were using it in today’s Gospel story. I’d always viewed it as selfishness, putting the self forward, in positions of power over others, in control of as much as possible.
In that training, self-interest was defined differently. Instead of being selfishness, it was defined as being interested in the whole community, you and me, neither one above the other. It’s a difficult balancing act, striving for honor, virtue, justice, fairness, equality, and integrity. That’s what self-interest is by that definition.
However, still there are those who see it in the selfishness way that comes to mind so quickly when we encounter the term.
As people of Christ, we default to wanting to be innocent. We want to be good people. We want to be as close to the model Jesus provides as possible.
We view the desire for power as a negative, because Jesus tells us in this lesson that we’re not supposed to be about using power over other people.
So, what do we do? What is the best way to serve one another in a world that covets power over others? What is in the best interest of the entirety of God’s creation?
Working within the political systems of this world is extremely difficult. Getting into the positions of power without using power badly is almost inconceivable, because people will often reward what they desire rather than rewarding what is good. People will use the ways of the world, rewarding those who Lord their power over others.
Yet, in this world, Jesus calls us.
Jesus calls us in this world to use our power differently.
Jesus calls us to serve, to put ourselves in the position to help those with less power.
We can do that within the political system, and we can do that alongside the political system, because we are already gathered into the kingdom of God, we are already God’s children. As God’s children, we share God’s love, by serving those in need, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen