We kind of like to know where we stand in various pecking orders. It seems to start pretty early in life—I still remember feeling pretty good about myself in fifth grade that Debbie Sundstrom, the consensus prettiest girl in the class (and the daughter of the high school head basketball coach, which also gave her “status”), had me ranked as her third favorite boy. And I was really aware that the odds were very slim that I would ever move higher than that ranking, so to be “number three” was actually pretty amazing. From early on, knowing our place in the context of other people seems to be a fairly key part of life.
We do what we can to enhance that status. We make connections with the “right” people. We go to the “right” events. We get on the “right” committees or boards; we join the “right” organizations. Anything that can “get our name out there”. Anything that can make us “somebody”. We do favors; we call in favors. So much becomes transactional—all for the purpose of assuring our “place”.
In the passage from Mark 10, we have a story of such an attempted maneuver to achieve such status. On the one hand we’re a bit disappointed about this happening in this story—on the other hand, it is, after all, all too familiar. And the response is not exactly what those making the attempt were looking for, and as a cautionary tale and instructive lesson for us—well, it is sobering, and yet liberating at the same time.
Jesus has just told the twelve disciples about the horrible things that will happen to him when they all get to Jerusalem. He will be arrested, tortured, spat on, and sentenced to death. It seems that the disciples don’t really believe him—at least James and John, the sons of Zebedee, don’t believe him. Because they follow this dire prediction Jesus makes with this request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” It seems they have missed what Jesus has said entirely, and are instead focused on angling for their place.
Jesus doesn’t exactly encourage them with his answer. It seems that he wonders if they have heard him—because he asks them if they can take what he will have to take (that he has just told them about). And we wonder if they heard any of it, because they say that they can. Jesus assures them that they will have tough stuff to face—and reminds them of the part they seem to have missed: “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all”—and that he came “not to be served, but to serve”.
We want things to go our way. We want our status, or recognition, our “place”. Jesus has a place for us. It may not be what we would ask for—but if it is Jesus who gives it to us, and promises never to leave us or forsake us, then perhaps that’s the best place?
NEW TESTAMENT Hebrews 4:12-16
12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
GOSPEL Mark 10:35-45
35 James 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.’ 36 And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37 And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38 But 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?’ 39 They 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; 40 but 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.’
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’