Scripture: Mark 10:35-45
In the movies, there’s a particular scene that always makes me uncomfortable. In the scene, someone who’s about to die turns to the person who’s with them and says, “I need you to promise me something.” And without fail, the one being asked responds, “Sure, anything. What is it?” What makes me so uncomfortable is that they’re promising to do something before they even know what they’re being asked to do. I’m still waiting for the second character to respond, “Well, that depends upon what you want me to do.” Here’s my advice: don’t promise someone, if they’re on their deathbed, that you’ll do whatever they ask before know what they want you to do.
Well, this is how I feel whenever I read this story of James and John trying to exact a promise out of Jesus before they even tell him what they want him to do. The scene takes place on a dusty road somewhere outside of Jerusalem, where Jesus and many of his followers are headed for the Passover Celebrations. Jesus seizes the opportunity to do some teaching while they travel by foot. Specifically, he’s giving them a heads-up about his impending execution in the days ahead. Look, he says, at some point after we get to Jerusalem, I’m going to be handed over to the religious leaders, most of whom have been out to get me for the past three years. Well, this time they’ll get me. I’m telling you now that they’re going to find a reason to condemn me to death. And in the process they’ll ridicule me, spit on me, torture me, and ultimately have me killed. But know this as well: on the third day after my death, I will rise up – a clear reference to his resurrection.
This is not the first time Jesus predicted the end of his life. In fact, Mark – the writer of the Gospel by that name – recorded three different instances of Jesus telling his followers about his death. And every time he did, we’re told that they were confused and didn’t understand what he was trying to tell them, but usually didn’t ask for clarification because they were afraid. So here we find him telling them once again that he’s going to be handed over and killed. And this time it gets a response.
James and John, two of Jesus’ initial disciples, approach him with a request. They’ve heard what he said. And I imagine they’d got to talking about those earlier predictions Jesus made. It seems to me that their main takeaway was the fact that Jesus, who they now believed to be Messiah, would soon be returning to his glory. They seemed to understand that much.
So they come to him with a personal request. But their request shows that they still didn’t really get it. James and John were brothers, and as brothers, were probably trying to have the other’s back. You can almost see them quietly conferring with each other as they walked along. If things are about to go south, as he says they will, we need a plan to make sure we’re taken care of. And so they approach Jesus and say, “Lord, we want you to do something for us.”
Not promising anything before he hears the request, he simply inquires, “What do you want me to do?” to which they reveal their hand: “When the time comes for you enter your heavenly glory, give the two of us a prominent place next to you – one at your right, and the other at your left.”
It’s not exactly the same, but this request is similar to a criminal who’s been caught and sees the writing on the wall, and so decides to work out a deal with the powers that be, even if it means turning their back on their compatriots. James and John see what’s coming, and are looking out for themselves. In the Bible, the ‘right hand of God’ is a metaphor for God’s omnipotence, or his all-powerful nature. And so to sit at God’s right hand is to be identified as being in the special place of honor.
In your mind, picture a king sitting on his throne. And then picture two others seated with the king, one on either side, sitting in slightly smaller thrones. Those two persons sitting next to the king, both facing the people as the king faces the people—would you say that their placement as such indicates a position of power? When all is said and done, James and John were seeking power for themselves. This is why we read that the other ten disciples were so upset when they heard about their request. They understood right away what the two brothers were asking for, and they also understood the fact that they were willing to leave the other ten to fend for themselves, so to speak.
Power. This story is about power. The locus, or place, of power. This is why, when then other disciples became angry with James and John, Jesus huddled them together and specifically addressed the issue of power. He said,
You know how it is with the various leaders and rulers in the Gentile world, how they throw their weight around, right? You know that when people get a little bit of power it quickly goes to their heads, and they use their position to do whatever they want. Well, let me make this very clear—that’s not how it’s going to be with you. That’s a kind of power, for sure, but it’s not true power.True power and true greatness come by being a servant to those who have less power than you. Hear me well, if you want power – real power – then you need to let go of any notion of becoming great and strong in the world’s eyes, and allow yourself to become weak by the world’s standards, being servant of others instead of having dominion over them. Remember that I, the Messiah, who has the power of heaven behind me, came into this world not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:42-45).
What a strange idea, that greatness comes through giving up control. Through submission to others. Through doing things that are “below my station in life.” NPR recently did a story on Betty Ford in which they talked about her journey out of substance about. They reported that when she entered rehab, one of her required duties was cleaning the bathrooms. When some heard that the wife of the President of The United States was on her knees cleaning toilets, they objected. That was below her. But Mrs. Ford objected to their objection. In the world’s eyes it may have been below her, but she knew that her position made her no better than anyone else there, and that she would perform the same menial tasks as them. Betty Ford embodied true greatness and power.
There’s a scene from the film Schindler’s List that will forever haunt me. Oskar Schindler has been trying to convince Capt. Amon Gothe, who oversees a concentration camp, and who’s utterly ruthless with the prisoners, that true power is displayed by choosing to not kill a prisoner when he feels he should. And for a short while he resists his instinct to shoot a prisoner when he feels like doing so. The scene that haunts me is when he initially takes steps to execute a prisoner, but remembers what Schindler told him and so he pardons him. The prisoner leaves, thinking he’s miraculously survived certain death. But within minutes, Goth can no longer stand it, and he can’t stop thinking that pardoning is a sign of weakness. So from his office balcony high above the camp, he shoots and kills the prisoner while he’s walking away.
By the world’s standard, that’s power. Power is measured by the ability to control and manipulate others…to make others do what you want them to do…to make things happen your way. In the world, power is being able to call all the shots. It’s displayed in the dropping of bombs…in name-calling and bullying…in demonizing those who are different…in killing someone who speaks out against you.
But in the economy of God, power looks a lot different than that. In the kingdom of God, true power looks like what the world calls weakness. Whereas in the world, the strong shall inherit the earth, in the kingdom of God, the meek, or humble, shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). In the world, power is dominance-over another. In the kingdom of God, power is submission-to another. In the kingdom of God, love is power.
When it comes to wielding power in whatever setting it may be, it’s important to remember something: love wins. In the end, love and grace always win. Whether we’re fully aware of it or not, the end of the story—the whole story of creation from Day 1 until Christ’s return—the end of the story has already been written. And the end of the story is that God wins. God’s way of doing things will be the ultimate victor.
To wield power in the way of the world may give you victory in battle, but it’ll end in losing the war. You may get what you want today, but in the long run, you lose everything. On the other hand, to wield power in the way of God may result in losing some battles now, but it’ll end in winning the war.
Take the very thing Jesus told his followers on that dusty road would happen. I will be handed over to the authorities, tortured, mocked, and killed. And sure enough, he submitted himself to those who wielded power over him, and they killed him. On that day, no one would disagree that their power over him seemed to have the last word. In the spirit world, Satan celebrated his victory.
But that victory was short-lived, because three days later Jesus was resurrected, just as he said would happen. On that first Easter morning, the risen Christ passed through the large stone that had been rolled across the entrance of his grave, and later revealed himself to his disciples who’d locked themselves in a room. In submitting himself, Jesus showed weakness in the worlds eyes. But as it turned out, his seeming weakness was actually the greater power. His “weakness” in the flesh ultimately led to his power over death. He lost the battle, but won the war.
Which power do you seek? Before you answer too quickly, saying, “I have no desire to dominate others,” let me ask another question. Will you actively look for opportunities this week to apply kingdom of God power? That is, will you seek out ways to serve someone over whom you’ve been granted worldly power? Are you willing to submit in some way to someone who’s “below your station”? Think of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples the night of his arrest. As you go through this week, in your relationships with people are you willing to forgo winning the battles so as to ultimately win the war through love and grace?
Because the truth is, love and grace always win in the end.