The sons of Zebedee have something to ask… Sermon for October 21

Sts James & John

The readings, for the thorough, may be found here 

The reading this morning from the Gospel according to Mark tells us a story of a mis-conversation, if you will, between Jesus and the disciples.  

This time it’s those Zebedee brothers… They have a bit of a reputation, and true to form they begin with a request that seems outrageous. Grant us to sit at your right hand and your left… In other words, make us your number one and number two guys, your top assistants… put us in line right behind you and, to the chagrin of the other disciples, ahead of everybody else. It seems presumptuous and arrogant and oh so many other things. 

It doesn’t go well. But not in exactly the way I would expect. I would expect an angry Jesus to knock them both down a peg a two… who do you guys think you are? Get out of my sight… But that is not Jesus’ response. He tells them that they don’t know what they are asking for.  

There is something important behind this misunderstanding. The Brothers Zebedee are thinking in a very traditional way. In their view, Jesus is the conquering hero who has come to save all Israel – that is to say the expected Messiah. He will be the supreme ruler and he will need someone extremely trustworthy at his right hand and his left hand – the traditional seats of power next to the king. We still use the phrase “right hand man” to refer to a most trusted assistant.

Jesus reminds James and John that he comes to serve, not to be served

The problem is that Jesus has not come to replace an old monarch in an ongoing system. Jesus has come to change the system. James and John are thinking that Jesus will just kick out the bad rulers and be a good ruler. And they will all live happily ever after. 

This is not the plan that Jesus and God have in mind.  

But there is more wrong in this Zebedee question. 

Jesus has already told the disciples how bad things are about to get. He has told them that they are on their way to Jerusalem where he will be killed. This is not the standard Messianic vision, but it is what Jesus knows is coming. James and John are very ready to share in the glory, but Jesus knows that glory, in an earthly sense, is not in the future. 

You want to be at my right hand and left… but can you drink the cup that I will drink? Or be baptized as I will be? Keep in mind that the cup Jesus’ refers to will be filled with his own blood. It is a symbol of sacrifice and suffering. And behind the symbol of baptism is the notion of drowning – of dying to life to be raised to new life. The Brothers Zebedee have visions of glory and power and Jesus has a clear vision of crucifixion and sacrifice.  

But then Jesus goes on – the cup I am about to drink you will drink. And you will face the same baptism of death and resurrection. What I hear Jesus saying is you will get what you have asked for – but you won’t like it.  

Time and again Jesus has tried to explain to the disciples that he is not what they want. They want a super hero who will overpower the foe and rule. That would be an improvement, but Jesus has something bigger in mind.  

Br Don Bisson, a Marist Brother and scholar, thinks about change as happening on a spectrum. On one end is a notion of translation and at the other transformation.  

In translation, things remain pretty much the same. For example, there was a tradition in the early church of moving the bones of a saint, when that person was recognized as a saint. So, John Chrysostom died in exile in an obscure place called Pitiunt. But decades later, when those who had exiled him were gone, his bones were returned to Constantinople, where he had been Bishop. And he was recognized as a saint. His bones were, in the proper language, translated. But they were the same bones… Just in a different place… That is the change of translation. 

Valley of Dry Bones by Dore – in this version available on a zipper carry pouch. Who knew?

Ezekiel, on the other hand, in a vision, walks with God through the valley of dry bones. And God tells Ezekiel to speak to those dry bones… and the bones take on sinew, flesh, and begin to breathe. Breath, remember, is Spirit. The bones become filled with Spirit. They are transformed.  

So, Jesus is working to transform the world, not translate it. But James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are lost in translation… 

I am often grateful to the disciples for being kind of thick… a bit slow on the uptake… Every struggle I have in faith they seem to have had as well. There is comfort in that. Jesus didn’t trash his disciples and go get new ones – better ones… smarter ones… As thick as the disciples were, Jesus stuck with them. And I take that to mean that however poorly I proceed on my journey of transformation into the body of Christ, Jesus remains with me. 

The truth is that we would all rather be translated than transformed. That is the human way. Translation is relatively safe – transformation is not safe at all. 

But the story doesn’t end with Jesus interaction with James and John. The other disciples get word of the outrageous request James and John and they are not impressed. If I were one of those other disciples I’d be miffed. And at some level, if I’m honest, I’d be angry because they had the nerve to ask for what I want… The other disciples may have been more subtle in expressing their desire, but they are not more advanced in their understanding. They are still thinking in terms of a new ruler to kick out the old one. Translation rather than transformation…  

It must be a great sadness to Jesus that those who know him best don’t get it. It must be a bit painful and a bit worrisome because Jesus knows his days on earth are numbered with a small number. Will the disciples get it in time? 

So, Jesus gives a very direct lesson on how power will be organized in God’s Kingdom as opposed to how it works now. The version we heard this morning is fairly gentle – Jesus says the people the Gentiles recognize are rulers lord it over them…  

What gets lost here is Jesus contempt for these rulers. Our very polite version does not do contempt too well… In some other instances the word Esteemed appears, which would seem to suggest great respect, except if we could hear Jesus’ tone of voice, we’d hear sarcasm. Some scholars suggest that the best translation would be “these so-called rulers of the Gentiles…”.

Sons of Zebedee in their later, calmer years

Jesus makes plain to the disciples that the current definition of ruler is out. And then he puts a new definition in place. You want to be a great ruler? Start by being a great servant. If you want to be leader, become a slave… Just as Jesus has come into this world to be a servant, not to be served. To rule is to be lowliest of all.  

And Jesus doesn’t put a time limit on this… It would be nice, and far easier to accept, if Jesus had said if you want to rule, then for a while you have to serve… If you want to run the company, you must start out working in the mail room… If you want to be a great General, you have to start in basic training. But Jesus doesn’t say anything about service being temporary, or for the purpose of learning… He just says you have to serve, as Jesus came to serve. Forever… 

The disciples struggled with this. The early church, as witnessed in the various letters of Paul, struggled with this. Certainly, in the middle ages, the church and its leaders became drunk on power and glory, not living like prices, but literally being Princes. After the reformation “fixed” all that, here we are, still struggling to understand how little power has to do with the message of Jesus. 

I know how great the struggle is because it is my struggle. Like James and John, I think it would be really great to sit at God’s right hand… in power and glory…  

But the place I need to sit is with the poorest of the poor and the most broken in spirit – because that is where God’s right hand is.



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