There is an old story of a man who is driving home from work when suddenly, his car is struck by lightning. As one would imagine, the man was quite shaken by this. The fire department and paramedics came and checked him out, and he was fine. Remarkably, the car was also fine, and he was able to drive home. Upon arriving at his home, he told his teenaged son all about what had happened. His son replied, “dad, we should go buy a lottery ticket. They say the chances of being struck by lightening are the same as winning the lottery.”
In today’s Gospel from Mark, we find a similarly self-absorbed James and John, the sons of Zebedee, when they come to Jesus and say: “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.”
This request of the brothers comes right after Jesus teaches them, for the third time, about his coming passion and death. It is almost as if they were not listening at all. But this encounter is yet another in a line of Jesus teaching about the closeness of the kingdom of God and his Apostles not understanding what he is trying to say.
Jesus has given them a new understanding of marriage and divorce, yet they do not understand. He taught them about the priorities in the Kingdom of God with the story of a man with many possessions, yet they did not grasp that meaning. And now we have the brothers coming and asking for this “favor.”
Scripture tells of Jesus going off on his own to pray, especially after a particularly trying period of his ministry. I think he went away, shaking his head to ask God if this is the crew he is supposed to be hanging with.
The gospel does not give us any insight into why the brothers come and ask Jesus for this favor, and it does not matter. It is all rather comical and somewhat insensitive. But what of the others? Scripture tells us they heard the request, and they became indignant at the brothers for asking. Jesus has just predicted his won death, and they are like yeah, that’s bad and all, but can you get us good seats?
This encounter between the brothers and Jesus appears in Matthew and Luke. Matthew seems a little uncomfortable with the brazenness of the brother, so Matthew has the mother of James and John ask Jesus for the good seats, and Luke does not name the brothers but writes that a dispute has arisen amongst the twelve over who would be the greatest.
We will truly never know of the discomfort of the Gospel writers with this story. We can either feel a sense of the comic and laugh or feel a sense of embarrassment for the brothers at their request. Part of our feelings about this story might come from the fact that, in some ways, we are all sons of Zebedee.
Of course, none of us would ever make outlandish, insensitive requests like the brothers have, but we do want the best seats in the house. We may not be as upfront about our desire, but many spend their entire lives looking for those privileged positions that put them ahead of others. We want the job with the fancy title, the flashy car, the big house. We want a lot of things that we may never admit out loud.
So, are we really any different than the brothers? We might not make the brazen request, but we covet the best seats and the top position in our hearts. This is all part of the human condition, and as such, we try and explain it away. Theologically we might look at Genesis 3 and blame it all on the fall of humanity. An attempt can be made psychologically to justify our behavior with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Erickson’s stages of development. If we really want to mess things up, we can site anything by Freud.
However, only when we face our own tendencies to be a son or daughter of Zebedee can we come to terms with our humanity and live the new life of discipleship.
Part of our Communion service is a confession and an absolution or a reminder of how we are all forgiven through Jesus. No one likes to recall the times when they have missed the mark, but confession is vital in our spiritual life and our psychological life. None of us are perfect, and we are all in need of God’s grace. But we fool ourselves when we think we have nothing to confess. If the act of confession makes us uncomfortable, great, that is precisely what it is supposed to do.
The great German Theologian and martyr Detrick Bonhoeffer spoke about what he called Cheap Grace. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
In contrast to cheap grace, Bonhoeffer spoke of costly grace, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'”
Part of being a disciple is being a servant to others. Transformation happens through being a servant. When the man with all of the stuff that we heard about last week asks about eternal life, Jesus says, “follow me.” Being a follower of Jesus is a life of servanthood that transforms us unto eternal life.
When John appeals to Jesus to ask him to stop the man from casting out demons in the name of Jesus, he responds by telling him not to stop the man. Following Jesus, even in ways that might seem odd to us, can lead to wholeness. Servanthood is a means to grace.
St. Frances was commemorated a few weeks ago, and today his words seem a fitting way to bring this to a close.
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.