Donald Meichenbaum, one of American Psychologist’s ten most influential psychotherapists, tells a story of the time his car was struck by lightning while he was driving home from work one afternoon. When he returned home, safe and sound, he began to tell his teenage son about what had happened; he was expecting a small degree of sympathy for what had happened to him. Instead of sympathy, his son interrupted his story, “Dad, let’s go buy a lottery ticket. They say the chances of being hit by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”
It would seem that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, missed the point as much as Meichenbaum’s sons did when they come forward to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus politely asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” They respond, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
To get the full picture of the story we need to back up a little and read verses 33-34. Jesus and his disciples are heading up to Jerusalem. Jesus has been teaching them about how things are different with his teachings. He has given them a new definition of marriage and divorce. They witnessed his telling the Rich Young Man to sell all he has and give it to the poor and then come and follow him. The disciples were trying to figure it all out along the road and discussing things among themselves as they walked. They Jesus says to them, in verse 33:
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Now, we do not know how much time has passed since Jesus said these words and the Sons of Zebedee come up and ask this question but, this was the third time that Jesus has talked with them about his death. He has been somewhat truthful about what is going to happen when they reach Jerusalem; the end of the three-year journey is coming to a close. Jesus has just told them that he is going to be put to death and a rather disgusting way and these two want the best seats in the house. It’s as if they have not been listening at all.
Every time I read this particular passage, and I am struck by the sheer arrogance of these two, coming forward as they do, and asking for Jesus to promote them to the best seats. I can only imagine what the others must have been thinking, “look at these two sucking up to Jesus again.” I also feel a little embarrassed for them but at the same time feel a little kinship with them for I too, at one time or another, have been a son of Zebedee.
We have all been there. We all, at one time or another, jockey for position. We try to get our work noticed by the boss so we might land that promotion. We might know someone who works for this or that sports team or at the theater, and we ask about tickets to a game. There is nothing wrong with putting ourselves out there and trying to get noticed, but we have to consider what our motives are when we do it.
When we push ourselves forward are we doing it at another’s expense? Are we stepping on a co-worker to get ahead? I do not think this is what James and John were doing and I also think they only heard the good parts of the Kingdom of God Jesus was describing, and they glossed over, in their minds, the bad parts, but, Jesus is about to remind them.
Verse 38 and following:
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 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.”
Jesus is speaking about his death, and he was right to tell them that they would also die. James is considered the first Christian martyr, and his death is recorded in the Acts of Apostles. King Herod has James Martyred by the sword around the year 44 so a little over ten years after Jesus’ death.
So the question remains, are we any better than the Sons of Zebedee? Sure, we might not make outlandish requests as they did but, we want what we want. We may not be as upfront about our self-centered yearnings, but many spend their lives scheming for these kinds of privileged positions, and some believe that as Christians, we deserve them.
Years ago, I would go to a little restaurant not far from where I was living. I would go most days for lunch or maybe some quick take out in the evening. As you would imagine, they go to know me after a while, and they found out I was clergy. One day when I went for lunch, they told me it was no charge since I was a minister they were not going to charge me. Believe it or not, I did not like this, and I told them that if they were not going to charge me I was going to go somewhere else, my position did not grant me a special privilege. I appreciated their gesture, but I wanted them to charge me. So they did double. Only kidding. However, the point is I did not want something that I did not earn, some of my clergy colleagues feel they deserve things like this, I am not one of those. However, a veterans discount is a different story.
Some would argue that our desire for these things comes as a result of the human condition. Some would pass it off in psychological terms as part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Erikson’s stages of development or Freud’s id impulses. However we chose to describe it, or justify it, we all have, as Jana Childers has said, we have Zebedee DNA in our Genes.
Just like the Rich Yong man from last week’s story, we have to face up to the Sons or daughters of Zebedee inside all of us. We have to come face to face with our tendencies and to come to terms with our humanity and live this new life of discipleship that Jesus is calling us to live. This new life is a life of putting others before ourselves. Caring for others before we care for ourselves. Thinking of others before we think of ourselves, why, because this is the example that Jesus left for us.
The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote, “Only those who face their wounded condition can be available for healing and so enter a new way of living.” When we are honest with ourselves about our condition, we can then begin the journey towards wholeness and the new life that Jesus is calling us too.
Jesus is our example of wholeness because he told us that he had come to “serve and not to be served.” When we have come to grips with our reality and begin to overcome our insecurities that drive us to greed and coveting, then we will be in a better position to serve, some of the time, rather than being served all of the time.
Transformation happens when we become servants. Last week, the Rich Yong Man asked Jesus about eternal life, and Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Following Jesus in a life of servanthood transforms us unto eternal life. Servanthood is a means of grace, and it needs to become a lifestyle if we are to truly follow as Jesus invites us to.
I typically close with a prayer and today I have chosen the words from St. Francis so let us pray:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.