22nd October, 2009
NILS VON KALM
Read Mark 10: 35-45
The story in this Gospel reading is about the ultimate power grab. James and John come up to Jesus and ask him to do for them whatever they want. That's a pretty audacious request.
If you are a parent, what would you do if your little boy or girl came up to you and said “Mummy, Daddy, I want you to do whatever I want?” you would probably laugh, and you would probably see it as a little arrogant. We might think the same of the disciples. Who did they think they were?
A NEW MINDSET: Jesus and the 12 Apostles at the Last Supper, in a detail from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Nils von Kalm writes that Jesus was trying to show the disciples a "better way" which didn't initially make any sense to them at all. PICTURE: © Jozef Sedmak (www.istockphoto.com)
"You always know where you stand with God. God is the one whose first words to you are 'I do not condemn you' To have this idea of a God who loves us first is totally foreign to our whole mindset. You actually don't have to do anything to be accepted by God. God accepts you first."
To get some sort of context about why James and John would have made such an outrageous request, we need to go back 2,000 years to understand the times they found themselves in.
1. They were living in the midst of the Roman Empire where status and honour were central to daily life.
2. They were in an occupied country, occupied by the Romans.
3. Because of Roman rule, it wasn't a nice place and time to be alive.
4. Average life expectancy for most people was about 30 and most of that was cruel and brutal.
5. No real sense of justice in the way that we think of justice today. Justice was when the elite got their way. That was justice.
6. Roman gods weren't about any sort of ethics or about showing you the right way to live. They were all about power.
7. The Jewish people were waiting for a Messiah who would come and overthrow the Romans.
8. They were following around an itinerant preacher who they were hoping just might be that one to overthrow the Roman tyranny that they had to face every day of their lives.
Mark is telling this story into that context. And so the entrenched mindset of the disciples was one of power and of hope for a coming kingdom where the Messiah would overthrow and rule. It's crucial that we get a sense of that.
So when the disciples hear Jesus talking about the fact that He is going to die and be crucified by the Romans, it's just so ludicrous that it doesn't even register. The author Dan Clendenin notes that, in Mark's Gospel, there are three different times when Jesus “warns his twelve disciples about his destiny at the hands of political powers and raucous mobs in Jerusalem-betrayal, mockery, condemnation, suffering, violent execution, but then resurrection.”
Clendenin goes on to note that after each of these three occasions where Jesus tells them of the brutality of what is going to happen to Him, His disciples try to correct Him. They respond with “objections, disbelief, fear, ignorance, and, incredibly, with requests for their own greatness and glory".
After the first time, Peter rebukes Jesus and Jesus tells him, "get behind me Satan". After the second time, He finds the disciples arguing with each other about who will be the greatest. And, of course, after this third time in this reading, James and John come to Him with their outrageous request.
The difference between the mindset of the disciples and that of Jesus couldn't be more stark. What the disciples fail to see is that the Roman power mongers, who they so despised and wanted to overthrow, are the very ones they are now imitating. But Jesus shows a different way, a better way.
Rowland Croucher makes the point about this story that, where James and John saw a throne, Jesus saw a cross. He also makes the crucial point that the next time Mark talks about "the right, the left" he's describing the two crosses either side of Jesus. The disciples' whole way of viewing life, and the coming kingdom which they were hoping for had nothing to do with that, so what Jesus said just didn't make any sense at all.
As well as hearing that the disciples just didn't get it when it came to what Jesus was on about, I think the more important thing for us to ponder is what would we do if we were in their position? We are no different to James and John. In fact we are no different to the rest of Jesus' disciples either. Notice from the reading that the other disciples were seriously peeved when they heard what James and John had asked Jesus. Because they wanted to get in first!
The desire for power and autonomy has been part of human nature ever since the beginning of humanity. We don't like the idea that we can't run our lives. We demand to be in control. We feel insecure when someone challenges our precious sense of authority. As Christians we are sometimes no different. We often want God to do whatever we want. How many of our prayers are subtle demands that God give us what we want? It's not God's will be done but ours.
The major psychological problem plaguing humanity has always been the demand of the ego to be first. Everything in our society tells us to be first. If you want to be the best you need to be seen with this drink in your hand, if you want to be the most attractive, you need to wear this perfume. And so it goes.
"The major psychological problem plaguing humanity has always been the demand of the ego to be first. Everything in our society tells us to be first. If you want to be the best you need to be seen with this drink in your hand, if you want to be the most attractive, you need to wear this perfume. And so it goes."
Research says we are exposed to about 200 or 300 advertisements every day. And advertisers know human nature. They create an artificial demand, telling us that we need something we don't really need. I remember some years ago when I was going for some temp work and one of the jobs I had to go for was for a cable TV company. It was a group interview and when we got in there we were told that or job was to convince people that this cable TV product was something they needed in their life. I've never been so glad to miss out on a job!
So before condemning James and John and making ourselves guilty of the very thing we judge them of, we need to put ourselves in their shoes. It's always easy to see the wrong in others. Martin Luther King gave a sermon on this passage called 'The Drum Major Instinct', where he spoke of the fact that everyone of us has this desire to be first. Dr King says that the desire to be first is with us from the day we are born. Our first cry as a baby is a cry for attention.
Now note that Jesus wasn't saying that it's bad to excel. He says 'go for it!'. If you want to be first, then be the first at serving, be the first at loving. If you want to be number one, be number one at giving. St Paul then echoes that later in the Bible when he says to outdo one another in love and good deeds.
James and John eventually got it, as did their mates, the other disciples. Over the coming years, they were to find out that there are no power games in the kingdom of God. They were to find that there is no male or female, Jew nor Greek, rich nor poor, because they were all one now. Over time the penny dropped. There were no divisions. God has no favourites. They realised that Jesus meant what He said when He told them that the first will be last and the last will be first.
As Dr King said, everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. He said that you don't have to have this or that to be great. You just need a heart full of grace; a soul generated by love.
Two thousand years later nothing has changed. Just that in our society the kind of power games we play have a lot to do with intellectual ability. Some years ago we had some national IQ tests on TV. When they were on, my wife and I did them together. The first time we did the quiz, my wife beat me. And I felt somewhat peeved. I thought that something had to be wrong with this test. You know when you've been exposed at something and you'll look for any way to find something wrong with it instead of actually admitting that you have been found out? Well, I was seeking my significance through the idea that I'm the smart one in the house. We place so much significance on intelligence. But Jesus shows that true greatness lies elsewhere.
Recently, a group called Jesus: All About Life, did a survey of Australians' attitudes to Jesus. The research showed that most Australians view Jesus as the most influential person in history but also that most Australians don't practice a religion, which suggests what people have generally thought, ie. that Australians like Jesus but not the church. And one of the main reasons for this is because the church has been too much like the rest of society. They don't see the church as having anything to offer. One of the reasons is that we play too many power games, just like the rest of society. I think the reason people like Jesus is because in him they see something different. Perhaps this is best described in the famous story called 'One Solitary Life':
One Solitary Life
Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.
He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself...
While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth - His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Twenty long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.
The way of Jesus is counter-cultural. It swims against the tide of everything we have had ingrained into us since the day we were born. Where the rest of humanity says to look after number one, Jesus says I have not come to be served but to serve. Where the rest of humanity demands that we be given what we want, Jesus washes his disciples' feet. And where the rest of humanity chases life through more comforts, Jesus goes the way of the cross and dies for each of us.
There's nothing wrong with being first. It's just a matter of what you want to be first at. True greatness comes by marching on our knees with Jesus, putting others first and going the way of him who Isaiah called the Man of Sorrows, identifying with the least, serving those who no one else wants to serve. Because then will we find life, when we don't put ourselves first but, in following Jesus, we put the lives of others before ourselves.
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