21 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Three years have passed since Jesus began his ministry. Soon, Jesus will enter Jerusalem on a donkey, with people shouting Hosanna and throwing palm branches on the road. He will spend the last week of his life there: turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple, telling his last few parables, celebrating the Passover, and carrying his cross to Calvary. There is only one more event before Jesus enters Jerusalem, the healing of Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, which we will hear next Sunday.
Right before our Gospel reading today, Jesus told the disciples exactly what was going to soon happen: “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.” This was the third time Jesus had told them what was going to happen, and this was the third time that they don’t get it. As we heard in the Gospel, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come up to Jesus and ask him a question. Sounding like kids asking their parents for something they know they should not have, they ask Jesus, “Will you give us whatever we ask?” Skeptically, Jesus responds, “Tell me a bit more.” “We want to sit at your right and left hand,” they reply. “You have no idea what you’re asking,” Jesus tells them.
If we flip a few pages ahead to the end of the story, we know that the only ones who ever get to be on the right and left hand of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, the usual places of honor, are the two criminals, the bandits, who are executed with him. After three times of telling the disciples that the kingdom of heaven does not resemble their expectations, James and John still come to Jesus trying to get the seats of honor in the kingdom of heaven. They want to be near Jesus to receive some of his reflected glory and power. Receiving the seat of honor in the kingdom of heaven, however, does not mean getting to comfortably sit next to the king, basking in the security of his power, enjoying a bit of it yourself, and being waited on hand and foot. No, receiving the seat of honor means getting down on your knees and washing some dirty feet. “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.”
The disciples didn’t actually see it any differently than the Gentiles. Jesus is using a rhetorical trick to say that this is what the Gentiles believe, because it is what the disciples believed, too. For the world taught them also that the best in the world get to enjoy the best of the world, enjoying the finest things in life, and lording their power over everyone else. And disciples had bought it hook, line, and sinker. Jesus was flipping this expectation on its head. We heard Jesus tell the disciples this last week after the example of the camel and the eye of the needle: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” We heard Jesus tell this to the disciples about a month ago, when Jesus said that “the first must be last of all and servant of all,” and then he took a little child and put it among them. This is the same message as the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, as Luke records, and blessed are the poor in spirit, as Matthew records. This is the same message when Jesus says that it is more blessed to give than to receive. The world around them taught them that those who were served were the ones blessed by God, that those with riches and power were the ones blessed by God, that those who were happy were the ones blessed by God, that those who got, who received, who accumulated, were the ones blessed buy God. And yet, Jesus is telling them that the kingdom of heaven is different, very different. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. And so those on his right and his left will have to be right there with him, right there serving alongside him.
Have we really changed all that much over the past two thousand years? Doesn’t Jesus’ message speak to us today just as strongly now as it did then? The world still teaches us that our value is determined by our success in life. The world still teaches us that our value is measured by our wealth and our power. The world still teaches us that our worth is found in how much we accumulate, in how much we can grow, in how fast and far we can go in that race, in how well we can climb the professional ladder. Yes, these words from Jesus still speak to us today, for our worth is not found in those things, but in the very fact that we are God’s beloved children made in God’s very image. And when we realize that we are made in God’s image, and so is the person sitting next to us, and so are the rich strangers and the homeless strangers who pass us on the street, and so is our boss, and so is our colleague, and so is our employee, then we can realize that the only option for us is to serve that image of God in love. The only option for us is to stop lording whatever power we have over others, and to use that power to serve others and to bring the kingdom of he `aven a little bit nearer to someone. The disciples had to hear this message over and over again, and so do we, because the noise of the world is loud and is telling us the opposite. So, we have to hear again the Good News that God loves us, that God has from the very beginning when we were made in God’s image. We have to hear again the Good News that blessings are not necessarily found in success, but in letting go and serving others. We have to hear again the Good News that the kingdom of heaven is near, so near that we can touch it. Jesus invites us to find this Good News by joining him in a life of service. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.