Oh, how we want to be important! How badly, how desperately, we want to be favored, to be loved, to be special. How much we want Mom or Dad to love us best (some of you will remember the old Smothers Brothers routines where Tommy says, "Mom always loved you best!").
Clearly, the disciples were no different. Once again, we see ourselves in them (and it's not always a pretty picture). This time, the brothers James and John ask Jesus for special consideration: they want to be the favorites, to be recognized as different and better than the rest of the group. This story comes after a similar episode where all the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest while they were walking to Capernaum. In this earlier story, once they arrive in Capernaum and are settled in the house where they are staying, Jesus comes in and asks them what they were arguing about on the road. And, perhaps realizing how silly it would sound, and afraid and ashamed to put their desire for recognition into words, they are too embarrassed to respond.
In this later story, however, at least two of the disciples, James and John, have found their courage, for the moment. They are alone with Jesus, away from the rest of the group, and they can ask him for a favor without the others hearing (and without the attendant embarrassment). They ask Jesus to let them sit at his right and his left hand "in your glory." But Jesus wastes no time disabusing them of that notion (and, of course, when they finally hear what is going on, the other disciples respond right on cue with disgust and derision-just as we do in similar circumstances!).
As is so often the case in Mark's Gospel, the disciples -- here represented by James and John -- do not understand what Jesus is talking about. Their request shows some awareness or belief in some kind of higher purpose for Jesus, as they are asking for places of supreme honor at his side, but it is unclear if they are referring to an earthly or a heavenly kingdom. And they still do not understand what Jesus will face when he arrives in Jerusalem; they have still not understood what he has tried to tell them. Nor do they understand what Jesus is saying about servanthood.
It's hard for all of us, as well, to hear Jesus' words about servanthood, about being last. Not only do we-like the disciples-want to be special, we want to be the best. And we live in a culture that encourages self-promotion, that worships fame, that values only winning and being "number one." Doing something just for fun or simply for the pleasure of the work seems to have lost its meaning. If we are not winning awards or being named MVPs, then what's the point? Activities that used to be just fun for kids are now pressure cookers of competitiveness, thanks to parents and coaches who have bought into the cultural ideal of winning and being the best at any cost. Adults are battling it out on the sidelines of their children's games, sometimes to tragic ends. Parents scurry around trying to make the "right" connections and arranging the "right" play dates and preschools, while our children are overwhelmed by multiple lessons and activities, selected to groom them for the "right" colleges and careers.
This rush to the top, of course, creates a huge imbalance in our society. After all, there are only so many slots at premium preschools and colleges, only so many CEOs, only so many MVPs, only so many stars. Not everyone will succeed at that level, for a variety of reasons. So, the rest of us are left feeling that nothing we do will ever be good enough, feeling that we are in some way worth less-worthless. The rat race consumes us.
But Jesus, as always, calls us to a different way. He calls us to be counter-cultural. He shows us a different way of being, a way that values individuals and their efforts. It's not only a way of being, but also a way out of the cultural madness. The culture tells us that if we are not the best, the star, we are worthless. True artists, however, know that they are called to be faithful servants to the work-recognition and rewards are pleasant and exciting, but it is really about the work itself. That is the creative Spirit that lives in all of us, that calls us out of ourselves and into productive work -- whatever it might be -- for the world, for the coming of the kingdom.
Jesus says our true worth lies in relationships: with God, with each other, and with the work we are called to do. By being faithful to those things, we find our real worth as human beings and as children of God. We can be released from the rat race that dehumanizes us. For we are not to "lord it over" one another, but to really see each other as individuals, as worthwhile, as valuable, as persons with dignity and a place in the world. When we really see each other, it becomes easy to be servants to each other: valuing each other, encouraging each other, recognizing each others' gifts, and helping each other live out our individual callings in the world.
As with so many things about the life of the Spirit, this, too, is full of paradox: it is only when we are free of the desperate need to "be number one," free of our fear, that we find our real selves, our real self-worth and sense of accomplishment, our real vocation, our real gifts, and our real reward.