The gospel today is a powerful reminder that all the ambitions that confront us in the office, on the job, in the community, all the pettiness that poisons our days, and all the jealousies that we feel are not something unique to us nor to our age. Even the disciples knew these emotions.
Let us look at the story. Two of the twelve, his dear friends James and John, "the sons of thunder," come to Jesus. In Mark's gospel, John does not seem to be the same loving and beloved disciple of the fourth gospel. He is ambitious and, as we saw a few weeks ago, he doesn't want to share the power his position as a disciple of the most popular man of the times is giving him. In other words, he wants it all. Imagine the scene. He and his brother take Jesus aside. This immediately causes suspicion in the others. But James and John are determined. The first thing they do is to bargain the answer to their request. "We want to know ahead of time that you will do it," is what they are saying. Like children: "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
It is the most primitive form of our prayers. "Oh, please give me this one thing, God, and I will not ask anything else." "You say you answer prayers, God, so I am counting on your answering this prayer of mine."
But even though they come to him with this immature approach, Jesus does not put them down. He asks them to define their request. "What is it that you want me to do for you?" Boys, I want you to hear yourselves articulate it, he is saying. As John tells us in his gospel again and again, the Lord, who knows the heart, knows what they will ask. But he wants them to hear their ambition and the wrongness of it. I imagine that they never forgot it. They want the highest positions when he comes into his kingdom, they say. The right and left hand are positions of power and honor. It must have been terribly sad for Jesus to hear his two dear friends ask for something that showed they understood little of what he had been teaching them: That his kingdom is not of this world. And that his glory will come at the greatest possible cost. The rest he will teach them soon.
He asks with great sorrow. "Can you drink from my cup?" This was an expression that they were bound to understand. The psalms and Isaiah refer to the "cup of salvation," "the cup of wrath," either blessing or judgement. The baptism was the total acceptance of God's way. Today we would ask: Can you take it? Are you sure you are ready to die? Are you sure you can take the pain? You don't know what you are asking.
How many times we have asked God for something and the answer came: "You don't know what you are asking." Poor James, poor John. They thought they were ready, and I am sure that after the horror of the cross, the joy of the resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the suffering of the early days of the church, they must have gotten ready indeed. And it was a good thing. Because, if the tradition of the church is accurate, they both died violent deaths of persecution.
"Yes," Jesus tells them, "you don't know what you are asking, because you indeed will drink my cup and be baptized with my baptism, but the rest is up to God." Jesus will not deal with favors; only with faith.
Biblical scholars tell us that this passage was probably added by the church after the two disciples had already met a death similar to that of their teacher, but we don't know that for certain. As he knew about himself, Jesus also knew what awaited those who chose God's way.
The other disciples apparently heard the whole discussion. And they became angry. How dare the sons of thunder ask for favors? Were they better than the rest? Jesus patiently takes all of them aside, and once again tries to give them a clear understanding of what they chose when they followed him. It is time for a reality check. The disciples are still hoping that Jesus will overthrow the Romans and become an earthly king. So Jesus tells them a thing or two about the earthly rulers, the Gentiles, they have heard about. "Look at the great ones among them," he says. "Not only are they bossy, the greatest among them are tyrants." He is showing them the meaning of human greatness as it applies to the rulers. The rulers are merciless and cruel to the people. They are oppressors. That is what "tyrants" means. Jesus and the disciples knew about the Romans and the way they treated the occupied lands. "Look at them," he tells them, "but it is not so among you." He gives them what they think they want to hear, but it is what turns their world upside down. "But it is not so among you."
You want to be great?
Become a servant.
You want to be first?
Become last. Become a slave of all.
What revolutionary values! No wonder the same leaders, political and religious, crucified him. They did not want the slaves becoming first. They did not want the great to be the servants.
Are we surprised? It is so even today. Only today, we don't crucify him; we ignore him. We say, he didn't really mean it. It was Oriental exaggeration he was using, a figure of speech. Yes, but no one dies for a figure of speech.
He meant it all right. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
The day came when they understood these words. Do we understand them also? How many times do we meet a politician, a bishop, an important person and ask: Is he, is she, a servant of the people, of the congregation, of the children? Do we enter into a job or a position in order to serve or to be served?
These are questions that each must answer in his and in her heart. We need to remember as we do so what Isaiah says about the suffering servant. This is not an easy road to travel. And at the same time we need to keep in mind what the Epistle to the Hebrews says: "The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword... it is able to judge the thought and intentions of the heart." And when we hear and understand, we realize how difficult this life of servanthood is and how often we fail. Then we go on to read and to find strength. "...we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 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."