James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Who are these rash disciples, James and John, who boldly ask Jesus for glory? They are the sons of Zebedee, who left their father and the fishing business to follow Jesus. They are the sons of thunder, as Jesus nicknamed them, who brashly ask Jesus if he wants them to call down heavenly fire on an inhospitable Samaritan town. So it should be no surprise that these two are asking for glory. They are brash and zealous. They are eager and ambitious.
Now I want us to pause right here because so often the sermons on this text say James and John are bad for wanting glory and to sit at Jesus’ right and left. These sermons will often imply that power is evil and everyone should be submissive, often without recognizing the very real power systems in our world. But I think these often miss the point. And note here that Jesus does not reprimand James and John for asking even if he does not say yes. So let’s start off by looking at what James and John got right in this text today.
First, James and John have put their full trust in the right person. They have heard Jesus repeat over and over that he is heading to his death but they have also seen the sick being healed and the hungry being fed. They left their father’s business to pursue this dreamer because they have a deep guttural trust in Jesus.
Second, James and John are ambitious for heaven on earth. They see all of Jesus’ radical actions and want to make it happen. They have heard him preach, listened to his stories, seen the miracles, joined in the action and are now eager to make it happen. They want that taste of glory. They have ambitions, which even if misdirected, are at least moving forward. Ambition can be directed by Jesus.
Third, James and John simply ask. They do not fight. They do not push others down. They reach out to Jesus, albeit slightly demandingly. But they stay in relationship with Jesus. They are bold in asking for what they think they want!
So I have hinted a couple times about a misunderstanding between what James and John think they are asking for and what Jesus is really saying. James and John grew up in a culture that, much like the ones we live in today, see being raised to a higher position as the goal of life. The idea of leveling up for more protection and more money and more clout. But Jesus has a radically different view on power and glory than our culture does. The problem can be simply put as are we doing this for us or are we doing this for others? Am I doing this for me or for you? A simple shift of the noun and the whole focus changes. Do we center ourselves or do we center our neighbors?
This can seem like a radical position in our world. So often our culture tells us we need more, we need more money, more material items, more, more, more. The people our culture reveres are those with the most. We make it seem like they are the best of us. But Jesus already has all the power of God, can call down legions of angels to wipe out cities, can feed thousands, can bring people back from the dead. Jesus knows power. Jesus knows it intimately since he created it. But the point of Jesus’ earthly ministry is over and over again to show us how to use power.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” Jesus had it all but knows that the only point of power is to care for others, not just yourself. James and John get stuck in the trap of thinking that Jesus is there just for them and their needs. But Jesus points them to a bigger reality that says do not just ask about yourself, but think about the power and privilege you have and see if you need to give it up or use it to care for those around you.
So the question Jesus has for us disciples this morning is, “what power and privilege do you have and how are you using it?” Are we hoarding wealth and material goods? Are we collecting power and favors? Are we building up our status and fame? Or are we using our power for others? Jesus dares us to turn from ourselves and towards others. To use power and privilege to make a more fair and just world. The disciples and the church are called to take a risk by loving others. To risk confronting the injustices in our world. But we risk it because of the beautiful vision and promises of Jesus. A world where all are taken care of instead of oppressed. A world where all are free instead of enslaved. A world where we work together instead of against one another. A world where heaven meets earth and all of God’s children get to exercise power to care for their neighbors. Amen.