James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus]and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Well, whatever’s going on in this text can’t be good. “OK, Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask.” Promise that first and then we’ll tell you what we want. Deal?
What could possibly go wrong here?
Can you just see Jesus rolling his eyes? Can you hear the deep sigh as he fortifies his patience?
“What is it you want me to do for you?” he asks.
James and John pull him a little further away from the others. Then they lean in close and whisper, “We want to be on either side of you when you become king. We want to ride your coattails into power. We want to sit in the best seats in positions glory. C’mon, Jesus, you know we’re your favorite apostles.”
With a sad look in his eyes, Jesus slowly shakes his head and says “You still don’t get it. Getting more power over others and benefitting yourself is the opposite of how God’s reign works. The ‘way’ of the cross is the way of serving others, giving up power so those without it have equal places at the table.” And then watch when we get to Jerusalem. Watch as I’m arrested, spit at, beaten, mocked, and put on a cross. I’ll show you what this cup is that you want to drink. I’ll show you what this baptism is that you’re so excited about. It’s the opposite of what you think—the opposite of what you want. So be careful. You may just get what you’re asking for. What is greatness?
So I’m wondering before hearing this text, if asked who’s the greatest person you know–would your answer be different than if you were asked now? Isn’t our first, immediate thought someone who is powerful, famous, influential–more along the lines of what James and John are looking for? But then Jesus’ definition sinks in a bit, and we have to rethink it. So go ahead and rethink it. By Jesus’ definition, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” who is the greatest person you know? . . .
Let me tell you about a great person I met in Jackson, MS this summer. I’d just spend a couple of days in Mississippi, and was finding this state to be both hopeful and frustrating. There were definite signs, not only of the deep and cruel racism that were glaring parts of its history, but also signs of genuine striving for inclusivity and equality. Yet there seemed to be a tiredness, an acceptance by blacks of their lesser places at the table and a refusal by whites to actually acknowledge their seats of privilege. I was confused because MS has the largest percentage of black citizens of any state in the country, and I couldn’t understand why there was such a repressive imbalance of power.
So, on my last night in Jackson, MS, I met a great person. She was a black woman about 25-30 years old and was serving tables at the restaurant of the hotel where I was staying. She was competent, attentive, funny, personable, and was on her way to earning a pretty good tip. We were getting along fine.
On a whim, since it was my last night in MS, I called her over and wondered if she’d answer a question for me. “Sure, if I can,” she said.
I explained to her how I was feeling about this state of Mississippi, and wondered if she had any insights (this was a “listening tour” sabbatical, remember?). “With such a high percentage of black citizens,” I pursued, “why does there seem to be this oppressive undertone? Am I misreading something?”
“No,” she replied. And then she said some things I found incredibly courageous—and that revealed her greatness. “I find it confusing too. I’m not from MS originally—I’ve only lived here for a couple of years. But, yes, for some reason I can’t figure out the power here is still held by whites.”
Then she said what I consider to be the most courageous—and the greatest—thing of all. “For instance, in this hotel, all the service employees are black, and all the managers are white.”
Even though she didn’t know anything about me, who I was, or why I was asking, she spoke up on behalf of blacks who may well be stuck in service jobs relying on tips or minimum wage to pay rent. For all she knew I could’ve been a friend of management coming to check up on how well the service employees were doing their jobs. There were many scenarios where someone like me could have had her fired.
But from her position of relatively little power, she spoke a truth that revealed her greatness. The blindness to power and privilege on the part of management was laid bare by this waitress. A place at the table for all.
The white management of that hotel seeks to sit, one at the right hand and one at the left of glory, clinging to seats of power and refusing to acknowledge any injustice. In the words of Jesus, they lord their power over others and are tyrants over them. And a black table server, drinking the cup that Jesus drinks, the cup of what could have been a huge personal sacrifice, took a risk of becoming last of all by speaking up for service employees who need a place at the table. That’s the greatness Jesus talks about. That’s the greatness James and John don’t understand. That’s the greatness of Jesus himself, and this is the greatness that reveals the nature of God.
It’s the greatness of Jesus that has opened the kingdom of heaven. It is the greatness of Jesus that includes even us. And it’s this greatness of Jesus we are now called to reveal, and then to emulate. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Who opens up places at the table? Who extends the table to include more? Who gives up cushy seats of honor and privilege so that others can share? That person may be the greatest person you know.