20 Pentecost Proper B24
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 10:35-45 Sermon
October 18, 2006
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
182 "O Day Of Rest And Gladness"
385 "My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less"
168 "O God Our Help In Ages Past"
479 "I Need Thee Every Hour"
WITH POSITION COMES RESPONSIBILITY
TEXT (vs. 13-16): "Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. 'Teacher,' they said, 'we want you to do for us whatever we ask.' 'What do you want me to do for you?' he asked. They replied, 'Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.'"
Over the years, I've held numerous positions connected with employment, as well as other groups to which I have belonged. In some cases, I knew what I was getting myself into; and in other instances, I didn't have a clue.
My first regular job was delivering the Lincoln Star newspaper. In those days, it was my responsibility to get up about 4 am and deliver about 35 newspapers to the various subscribers on my route. It was not a small area either.
The job was seven days a week, 365 days a year, of the same thing over and over again. For the most part, I did it on my bicycle. Thankfully on those days when it was snowing or teeming down rain, my dad very graciously would take me around in the car. But it was still my responsibility to do the job, and to get up in time to get the papers delivered. Of course I had to go to school as well.
Then there were the collections. I had to go to all the subscribers once a month and collect for their newspaper delivery. I couldn't always find the people at home, or they didn't have the money and I would have to come back. When they paid, I had a ring of cards with each person's name on it, and I would punch it with a paper punch. The subscriber also had a card that I punched as well.
This newspaper route was also my first experience with a checking account at the bank. I would deposit all of the money I collected in the bank account. Then the Lincoln Star would send me a bill for all of the papers I had received that month. I would pay the bill, and what was left over I kept as the profit I made for doing all of this work. And in case you're wondering, the money I made amounted to about a dollar a day. Even in those days, it was a meager amount for the time and effort I had to put in.
There were the early hours and the bad weather. Then I had to contend with other things like dogs that would chase me sometimes. Some of my customers weren't very nice either. And every once in awhile, somebody would move out and not pay me, which meant that the cost of their paper had to come out of the pittance I had made.
The things that I remember most however happened in January of 1968. On January 6th, my bicycle slipped on some ice while I was out collecting, and I broke my left hand. Then ten days later on January 16th, my bicycle hit another patch of ice, and I fractured my left leg in two places. The job wasn't without its hazards.
Of course I had people who would substitute for me during those times I couldn't do the route, but I had to arrange for that myself. That also involved having to pay them too, which came out of my rapidly dwindling profits.
The point of the whole matter, is that when I was in my early teens, I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into. I didn't realize the job would be as hard as it was, nor did I realize the hazards associated with it. Looking at it the way I did in the beginning, it didn't seem like it would be all that difficult. How difficult could it be to just roll up a few newspapers, ride around on my bike, and toss the papers on somebody's front step? All I could see was the fact that I was going to be making a bit of money for myself, and I would have some independence in that area.
The people at the Lincoln Star didn't adequately prepare me for what I would experience. By "selling" me the papers "at wholesale" and sending me a monthly bill, and with me collecting "retail" from the customers on my route, they made a big thing about me being in business for myself, a type of "Junior Merchant" as they put it. In reality however, they were able to "dangle the proverbial carrot" in front of hopeful young people with promises of big profits and success. The result was that they were coercing kids into a type of slave labor arrangement, without having to take any responsibility for us being their employees. They definitely had a good deal going, and the poor newspaper carriers were getting the short end of the stick.
Had I realized exactly what I agreed to do, I probably would have never done it. I would have found another way to make money; but at 13 years old, my options were rather limited. I entered into this agreement with the Lincoln Star of my own free will, with my parents' consent of course.
This morning in our Gospel lesson, we find two main characters who are brothers. Their names are James and John, sons of a fisherman named Zebedee. Jesus came to them and called them into his service. They would leave the family fishing business and devote their lives to Jesus and his ministry, full-time. Indeed that was a huge first step to take.
Now I don't know what they were expecting at the outset; after all, how hard could it be to follow around this itinerant preacher by the name of Jesus? But naturally it ran much deeper than that; they recognized him as being the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. And being the good Jews that they were, they most likely considered being amongst his disciples as an honor and a privilege.
The story about this presented in our Gospel lesson this morning, recorded in Mark chapter 10 also has a parallel account. The same story is recorded by Matthew in chapter 20; however Matthew's account mentions something that Mark doesn't. You have the Mark account of this story in front of you in your bulletin insert. Allow me to share with you Matthew's account, so you can better appreciate the situation going on here.
Let's examine verses 20-23: "Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 'What is it you want?' he asked. She said, 'Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.' 'You don't know what you are asking,' Jesus said to them. 'Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?' 'We can,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.'"
The twist that Matthew adds to the story is the addition of Mrs. Zebedee, the mother of James and John. Matthew records that she was the one who approached Jesus with her two sons, and she was the one who wanted her boys to hold a special high position in God's kingdom. Mark on the other hand indicates that this request came from James and John themselves, and doesn't even mention the mother. So why the difference? Isn't the mother a key element to the story?
In a sense, she is. She has to be, otherwise God wouldn't have seen fit to direct Matthew to include her in the story. However her absence in Mark's account drives home the point that the blame for this question cannot be shifted on to the mother. Since James and John were with her when she came to Jesus, it is to be clearly understood that they were in full agreement with her request. Even though the encouragement initially might have come from the mother, ultimately it was James and John themselves who had to take the responsibility for it.
Another thing to consider is the other disciples' reaction to this event. Today's Gospel from Mark records in chapter 10 verse 41: "When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John." This is an almost verbatim agreement with what Matthew records. Since the other disciples were upset with the two brothers, they undoubtedly knew that they were the ones responsible for this request, and not just the mother.
But if we consider these people together--the mother, James, and John, I seriously doubt if any of them really had any concept of what they were asking. The mother was probably thinking something like, "Okay boys, you've left your father's business, and you've dedicated yourselves to Jesus. I think he owes you something more for all the hard work you've been doing. After all, this is God's own Son we're talking about, and it is within his power to do anything he wants to. I'll go with you and we'll march right up to him and get what you deserve." It's almost like the wife who keeps nagging her husband to march right into the boss's office and demand a raise.
James and John probably thought at first that they didn't want to bother Jesus with such things; but after some persuading, they went along with the idea. Ultimately they were the ones responsible for it, and they incurred the anger of the other disciples.
James and John, along with Mrs. Zebedee looked at this situation in much the same way as I envisioned my paper route at first. All I could think about was all the money I would be making. I didn't even consider the responsibility of it all and the down side of things. For James and John to be sitting on the right and left hand of Jesus was a way of wanting to share his power and authority. They had no appreciation for what Jesus would have to go through to complete his ministry on earth.
So Jesus poses the question to them in verse 38. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" That's a fair question, and it's one that both James and John agree with. That question however has a very sharp point. Jesus wants to know if these two would be willing to accept what the Father has in store for him.
Now if they had been comprehending what Jesus had been previously telling them, their answer might have been different. Three times now Jesus has told them very directly, what was going to happen, that he is going to die; and each time they react badly, seeming to miss his point entirely. Earlier, Peter actually rebuked Jesus for talking about his rejection and suffering; and Jesus responded by calling him "Satan." Peter was thinking in earthly terms, and not accepting things according to God's plan.
Every time I have studied this section of Scripture, I wonder to myself how differently James, John, and their mother would have acted if they could have actually visualized what would happen to Jesus. I picture Mary at the foot of the cross, looking up at her son. Then I wonder how Mrs. Zebedee would have reacted if it was her looking up at her two boys hanging on crosses. I daresay that their question would have been either drastically altered, if not completely eliminated.
But we have our old sinful human nature that keeps hounding us. We are very much like James, and John, and their mother in our way of thinking. We like to assure ourselves that we can have positions of earthly security and power at our disposal. We want to be in complete control of things. We want God to give us whatever we ask, regardless of our selfish motives.
Jesus gives us that guarantee of eternity in heaven with him. It doesn't matter at all what physical position we might hold in Christ's kingdom. All that matters is that we have the assurance of heaven always before us. That's what is most important in keeping our earthly hope alive and well.
In verses 43-45 of our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples: "...whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus is describing what true greatness is according to God's standards. When we place ourselves on a pedestal and put worldly prestige and power above everything else, then we aren't great in the kingdom of God. Jesus showed us what true greatness is, by being obedient even to death. Christ's greatness came because he gave his life as a ransom for all of humanity.
In humility we come to Jesus just as we are. We shed all of our worldly fame and fortune, and cling to him in faith alone. We realize that it is only through faith that we can inherit our heavenly reward, where we will live and reign with him forever. The road might not be an easy one, but it will definitely be worth it. We will receive the reward of our faith in Jesus, which is the salvation of our souls.
One thing I've learned from my early days as a paper boy, and that is to look at things from all angles. The money was there, but there was a lot connected to it that I didn't see. Since that time, I've had other offers as well. I could have accepted positions in management with various employers, but I've declined. With management and prestige comes some very heavy responsibilities. In effect, one can become married to their job, in a manner of speaking. Positions of greatness can have a very heavy price tag attached.
Today we meet two brothers and also a mother who had some very mis-guided notions about what it meant to be great in God's kingdom. The positions of glory they were seeking came with a very hefty price tag. It was a price that Jesus was willing to pay so that we could be saved by grace through faith in him alone. Even though James and John and their mother could not pay this price themselves, they would nevertheless be recipients of the benefit--not by elevating themselves to positions of greatness, but by humbling themselves, confessing their sins and trusting in Christ alone for forgiveness.
That's the same for each of us here today. Our greatness comes because of what Christ has done for us. And this greatness demonstrates itself in the humble service that each of us shows to others throughout our lives. We don't place ourselves on a pedestal because of who we are, but instead we give all glory to God alone who has given all true believers the eternal hope of heaven.