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Those who want to be great should climb down the ladder, not up!
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, do for us whatever we ask." Jesus said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?" They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory."
But Jesus said, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?" They said to Him, "We are able." So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized you will be baptized; but to sit on My right and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared."
When the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.
"Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever desires to be first shall be slave of all. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many."
Mark 10:35-45 NKJV, condensed
Whatever You Want!
It's not unusual to grow up in a family that thinks of themselves as better than other people around them. I came from a home like that and you probably did too. The feeling of superiority is pervasive. Our school is the best. We work with the greatest team of employees. We salute the grand old flag and are defended by the finest troops. To top it off, our skies are bluer than anywhere else! It's a common attitude which helps us understand Zebedee's household.
Jesus did instruct his disciples to ask if they wanted to receive, to seek if they wanted to find, and to knock if they wanted the door to open. Brothers James and John decided to put that lesson to the test. "Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask." Right off the bat we know there is something wrong with that picture. It would have gone better if they had said, "Teacher, ask us to do whatever you want and we will do it for you." But that's not how the story goes.
"We want to sit one on each side of you when you come into the glory of your kingdom."
There was no lack of faith here and no lack of optimism about the future; no lack of arrogance either. They wanted the best seats, second only to the authority of the throne itself!
Now we could give them the benefit of the doubt. People reveal a lot about themselves by what they say they would like above all else. For many folks, the answer is to win a few million dollars in some lottery. James and John desired no money, no land, actually nothing pertaining to the present world. Their minds were on the kingdom of God and the future glory that Jesus talked about. "Jesus, when that time comes, we want to be there with you just like we are now, John on your right hand and James on your left." Were these simply loving words coming from loyal hearts that wanted to be with Jesus forever?
Judging from Jesus' response, that's not a completely accurate interpretation. Jesus told them they didn't know nor understand what they were asking. That's when the subject of suffering entered the conversation. Jesus wanted to know whether they were able to endure what he had to endure, and be baptized with water and fire? "Sure! Why not?" Indeed they would drink that cup and go through the fire for Jesus' sake. James become the first Christian martyr; John lived to old age, exiled on a lonely island. However, Jesus was not in the business of assigning seats in heaven.
It would be nice to think that it all ended there, but the other ten disciples overheard James and John's request and were not pleased. In fact, they were outraged. The problem with sitting in the best seats is that it excludes everyone else from that position and relegates all others to a lower level of importance.
Jesus had to settle them all down and get them back on the same page again. He did that by pointing a finger outside their group, at the oppressive Romans. In a not so innocent way, Jesus described how the Gentiles strive to be top dog so they can dominate and throw their weight around.
"We don't behave that way," Jesus told them. So don't follow their example. Here's what we do. Anyone who wants to be great must learn to be a servant. Jesus didn't come to be served, but to serve and give his life to set others free to do the same. Whoever wants to sit in the best seat must voluntarily seek out the lowest place and become--in heart, mind and spirit--a slave to all!
So James and John, who dreamed of a privileged position in heaven, got a lesson on suffering and servitude instead. They would need "a dark night of the soul" to correct their misunderstanding, and take them to new and deeper, greater levels of maturity. Up is down there; God's measuring stick is turned up-side-down.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: If Jesus would grant you one wish, what would you request?
Did you grow up with the sense that your family was superior? If so, how did this attitude manifest itself? Did your mom or dad outshine the other kids' parents! What are the positive and negative aspects of a superior disposition? How did your attitude toward your family change as you got older?
Matthew attributes the request for privileged positions to their unnamed mother. Mark doesn't mention her. What difference would her presence make to this story?
James and John thought they were the right people to be heaven's premier deputies. If you had been one of the Twelve, would you have made such a request? Why or why not? What does that request tell you about these brothers?
Jesus responded to James and John with another question, about a drinking cup. Restate Jesus' question in your own words.
"We are able." As Christians we are taught to believe we can do all things as Jesus strengthens us. What is something you were able to endure by relying on the strength of your faith in Jesus?
Make a list of words you associate with authority and another list of words you associate with being a servant.
Supremacy and service--how do they fit together in our society? Should those in authority also serve? Should those who serve also have authority? How do power and servanthood fit together in the kingdom of heaven?
What does it mean to you to be a servant of love for Jesus' sake?
The natural desire to dominate is so strong that even those who had been slaves, if they were freed, have been known to turn around and enslave others. What does this tell you about human nature?What does it take to convert us from wanting to be the boss to wanting to be the one who voluntarily serves as Jesus did?