Come to serve—Sunday 29, Year B (21 October 2012)

Mark 10.32-45


Jesus said:

whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

It’s not easy to be a servant, but it is the Way to Life. There is a Native American story that might help us to reflect on how we should live. It begins like this:

A young brave goes to an elder and says, ‘I’m confused. My heart is filled with good and with bad.’

Like the young brave, James and John were filled with good and bad. They desired to serve Jesus, but they were being led astray by false desires.

Peter, James and John were Jesus’ three main men. Oh yes, there were twelve apostles, and there were others, men and women, who followed him. But they were a core group of three.

The Three had come from the same place, Capernaum in Galilee. Fishing was their trade, and they plied it on the Sea of Galilee.

They were loyal to Jesus, but there were deeper loyalties at work. James and John were brothers, they were the sons of Zebedee. They wanted a core group of two, not three. They wanted Peter demoted.

So they come to Jesus asking a favour:

Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Now, that is so understandable. Ambition isn’t wrong, right?

It’s so understandable—yet so wrong on so many levels.

Let’s look at what has been happening just before J&J came to ask their ‘favour’.

Remember that people brought children to be blessed by Jesus. The disciples wanted them to vamoose, but what did Jesus say?

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

The kingdom of God belongs to those who can hold out their hands to Jesus with a simple, trusting heart. It belongs to those who will allow Jesus to bless them. James and John haven’t really got it, have they? They want to secure the best seats in the kingdom of God. Maybe they think they deserve them? That they’ve worked hard for them?

After Jesus blesses the children, the rich man comes along with his little question:

Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus reminds him of the love-your-neighbour commandments. And tells him he must sell all he has, give to the poor and only then can he follow Jesus.

J&J haven’t really listened well, have they? They aren’t going to examine themselves to see what keeps them from following Jesus with a whole heart. They’re certainly not going to give anything to the poor. They don’t want less, they want more—more power, more authority, more people doing their bidding and bowing at their feet. They aren’t really following Jesus at all. They are using Jesus to gain power.

And then—for the third time!—Jesus tells the disciples that he will be handed over and condemned to die and be cruelly treated. Then, after three days, there will be a great reversal.

And this is the moment that James and John choose to ask for a favour. Hardly sensitive timing! It’s as if they couldn’t hear what Jesus is saying at all. The commentator Tom Wright suggests that they heard it all as pictorial language, as though Jesus was saying:

It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to come out on top.

But Jesus was going to Jerusalem for a final confrontation with the powers that be. His talk about suffering and death—and the ‘after three days’ part—were real. But all J&J could think was After those three days, Jesus, can we get the best seats? ‘Reserved: James and John’ (but not Peter!).

So what does Jesus say to the brothers Zebedee? He doesn’t rebuke them. Instead, he tries to get them on track. He says, Can’t you see what I am going through? Will you drink the cup of suffering that I am already sipping from? Will you be overwhelmed by the waters of death that even now are up to my knees?

What else can they say? Yes Lord, we can do it. They haven’t got a clue what they’re saying. They still think tough days are ahead, but they’ll pull through. But by the time push comes to shove and Jesus is taken to be crucified, they have already run away. You couldn’t see them for dust.

Jesus had said,

the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

He fulfilled his word on the cross. Jesus went there because the rulers of the Jewish people and the Roman occupying forces put him there. He knew this would happen, and went of his own accord. But Jesus trusted that God would bring good out of it. And on the cross Jesus became our ransom, our rescue, our salvation.

(By the way: we know who got the ‘best seats’ when Jesus came in his power. For Mark as Paul as well as John, Jesus’ seat of power is on the cross. And who have the best seats? Who are on his right and his left? The two thieves. Not J&J.)

Then just what did Jesus mean when he said this?

whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Let’s look at the story. J&J were blissfully unaware of what Jesus was doing; they thought it was just a tough path to power and glory. Well, they were tough!They just wanted a piece of the action, something to show for all they’d done for Jesus. (And, I suspect, something to put Peter firmly in third place.)

So what does it mean to follow Jesus the servant-Lord? Looking at James and John, we can see that it does not mean wanting the best position for ourselves; or trying to we get the advantage over someone else; nor is it about being rewarded for our wonderful service.

And being a servant is not about being nice all the time; there’s a lot of ‘niceness’ in most churches, and sometimes it lets manipulative people gets their own way. Was Jesus always nice? No. But he always sought to serve God and his neighbour.

How did Jesus serve James and John? A ‘nice’ person might have let their remark go through to the keeper, or laughed it off. What did Jesus do? Jesus was patient with J&J. He didn’t lose his cool with them. Despite what was coming his way.

Jesus told them there was more to this than they realised (’You do not know what you are asking’). He asked them if they could walk the way he was walking, and he held the horror of what would happen firmly before their face.

Servants walk with their Lord and do what their Lord says. They don’t pick and choose. Servants serve. Sometimes, servants need to hear that following Jesus can end in what appears to be sadness and loss.

After all, what else is the cross? The resurrection isn’t a ‘happy ending’. It’s the transformation of everything—including suffering—into eternal life. It’s everything about us being taken up and taken into God. It doesn’t mean things will all work out like they do in a TV story, with everything resolved inside an hour.

It’s not easy to be a servant, but it is the Way to Life. Remember that Native American story?

A young brave goes to an elder and says, ‘I’m confused. My heart is filled with good and with bad.’ The elder says, ‘Two dogs live within the heart. One is good and the other is evil.’ ‘How do I know which one will win?’ asks the young man. ‘The one you feed will win,’ replies the older, wiser man.

The one you feed will win.

We have a desire to serve Jesus. We want to love our neighbour as ourselves. And—we want a good life for ourselves. If that means others go without, that’s just the way the world is. We don’t want to be taken advantage of.

Which desire will we feed? The desire to serve or the desire to get ahead? That’s the question for us today. One way leads to life.



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