Our gospel text for today seems to illustrate the old saying: There’s no such thing as a stupid question… but there are a lot of inquisitive idiots. James and John ask Jesus to let them sit by his side “in his glory,” and even Jesus is like, “buddy, I don’t think you really know what you’re asking.”
And their question actually sounds even more out of place if you read the bit that comes right before it. There’s a whole chunk of text that the lectionary skips over between last week and this week, and it gives the context for this conversation:
The disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
So, to recap, Jesus and the disciples are on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus says to them plainly, “Ok guys, here’s the plan: we’re going to Jerusalem; I’m going to be arrested and sentenced to death. Then I will be mocked, I will get spit on, I will be flogged – which is like being whipped, but worse – and then I will be executed. And then three days later, I’ll rise from the dead”
And literally the next thing out of anyone’s mouth is this question from James and John. I mean, read the room, guys! What an odd time to ask that question. It sounds especially strange to us because we already know how the rest of the story goes. We know who ends up being at Jesus’ left and right in this story: a pair of criminals being crucified!
Why do you think James and John would ask this question? Are they just a couple of narcissists trying to promote themselves in the middle of this life and death mission?
I think that our knee-jerk reaction is to write them off as clueless and self-absorbed disciples. Mark tends to portray the disciples this way; they just never seem to get it.
But there’s a word at the beginning of this passage that I think might help us hear it in a different way. In verse 32, “The disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and those who followed him were afraid.” Maybe James and John did understand. Maybe they knew exactly what was going to happen and they were afraid. And in their fear, maybe they did a very human thing. They were trying to find security with Jesus. If things really were about to get very bad, they wanted to try to take care of themselves, to make sure that their position was secure. Maybe they were just being pragmatic.
For me at least, this makes James and John a little more relatable. I’m not usually vain enough to go around just asking people for special honors, or being like, “Hey, where’s my special reserved seat?” Usually. But I do relate to being afraid. I think all of us can relate to being afraid. And I think we can all relate to wanting to do what we can to feel safe when we are afraid.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately, and about the way that fear shapes our communities and our society. We’ve been talking a lot these last few weeks about the intense division in our nation right now, especially leading up to the midterm elections next month. I think that a lot of this division is rooted in fear.
There are lots of reasons we might be afraid. We might be fearful about our children’s future. We might be fearful about what the changing demographics of our communities will mean for the way of life we’re used to. We might be fearful of crime or terrorism or natural disasters. There’s no shortage of reasons – good reasons – to be afraid
And that fear can shape us in ugly ways. Fear leads us to be distrustful of other people and suspicious of their motives. We have seen on a national level the effects of fear. We have seen refugee families detained and separated at the border out of fear of the other. We have seen in this election many voters disenfranchised by groups that are afraid of losing power.
When we are afraid, we have a tendency to circle the wagons – and we stop caring as much about what happens to people who aren’t in “our group.” If we have power, we “lord it over others” and become “tyrants” over them, as Jesus observes, because it makes us feel safer. We even see this tendency among the disciples in our gospel reading. When the other ten disciples get wind of what James and John have asked Jesus, they are furious! James and John were thinking only about themselves, not about the other disciples. Fear does that. Fear leads us to turn inward. It leads us to care more about ourselves and a lot less about serving other people.
Jesus comes to liberate us from our fear – to “ransom” us from fear, as our gospel text says. Throughout the entire gospel witness, we continually hear Jesus utter the same short phrase: do not be afraid. We should note that this phrase assumes that there will be reason to fear! Jesus never says “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” He simply says, “Do not be afraid.” Easier said than done! Jesus acknowledges in our gospel reading for today that there is cause for alarm. When James and John ask him for places of honor at his side, he asks them if they are really ready for what that entails. Jesus does not sugarcoat things; he tells them plainly that they will drink the cup he drinks whether they want to or not. There is reason to be afraid!
But in the face of that fear, instead of circling the wagons, instead of locking everything down and focusing on security, Jesus invites the disciples to be open, to open themselves to the world. And he says that whoever wants to get ahead and protect their own self-interest at all costs needs to let go of their fear and learn to be last of all and servant of all. Jesus knows that this goes against our human instinct. But still, he invites us to let go of our fear and distrust of others and to open ourselves to understanding and acceptance. He invites us to let go of our need to constantly defend ourselves and to open ourselves to wondering how our defensiveness might actually hurt others. He invites us to remember that the worst that this world can dish out to us is death – and he has already overcome death.
This is the way of salvation. It is the way of the cross, and the way of death and resurrection. Truly, there is much to fear. But we can go out into the world with clear eyes, with open minds, and with courageous hearts, because we know that Christ is walking with us. We don’t have to be afraid.