October 21, 2012 “ 21 Pentecost B, Proper 24
Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
I had a professor who, on the first day of class and periodically thereafter, took out a dollar bill, held it up in front of the class and said, This dollar is for the dumbest question asked today. He then placed the dollar on the podium and began his lecture which was more like a dialogue with the class. After the class he would take the dollar and quietly present it to one of us. Of course, the point he was trying to make was that he wanted us to enter the subject matter actively, without fear of asking the wrong thing. If we would be free enough to ask even the ridiculous, we would gain something that we could never gain just by listening to the lecture.
Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. At first reading, that sure sounds like a dollar winning question to me. Here is the Lord Jesus Christ in their midst, having only recently instructed the apostles about not seeking to be the greatest, and James and John, arguably the brightest and best of the apostles, ask if he’ll do them a favor. They not only want a favor but they want Jesus to agree to do whatever they want! And what they want seems so presumptuous and selfish: they want to sit at the places of honor when Jesus reaches his glory.
Now, at this point, we’re not sure if the apostles even understand what Jesus’ glory will be. They started off thinking that Jesus would establish a powerful throne on earth, a military and political power that would rule the world and prove to all that the God of Israel was the God of all things. Perhaps they want the supreme political appointment with servants at their beck and call.
But, by this point in the timing of things, Jesus has begun to teach them that he will die and that his glory will be in the eternal kingdom rather than the earthly kingdom. So maybe they are beginning to understand that. Still, they want the glory and the honor. They want to be in what they perceive to be the best possible place.
Daddy, am I your favorite person in the whole world? Children may or may not actually ask such a thing but every child at some point wants to be the favorite. James and John want to be the favorite, they want to be loved and they want everything that Jesus has taught them. They want the glorious outcome, the grand end of things. They’re impatient and certainly they are self-centered.
Jesus says, You do not know what you are asking. But the manner in which he then addresses them suggests that Jesus is actually glad that they have asked the question. You don’t know what you are asking but, in the asking, you are about to learn. He then begins to teach them that they can go through life in a manner similar to his life and that they can die, just as he will, but that the end of things is completely in God’s hands and is not something they can control, no matter how hard they try. It is for those for whom it has been prepared.
The other ten are indignant. They may have been thinking the same thing but at least they showed the good sense not to ask for it. And, in typical fashion, Jesus calls them all to him to teach them. Their own weak behavior has prepared the ground for his teaching. He speaks to them of serving rather than ruling, allowing rather than forcing, being humble rather than being great. It is a lesson they will be learning for the rest of their lives, one that is really only begun here. It is not that Jesus starts here but that their question allows them to start, and whenever we are ready the Truth awaits.
On another level we see, not the shallow nature of James and John, but the depth of their desire to live into what Jesus has told them. In one way, the comments and questions of James and John could reveal their great ambition to do things right and well. Tell us what all we need to do because we are ready. We want to be the very best at what you have taught us. Point the way and we’ll run there as fast as we can. Help us be the best.
In response to that sort of posture, Jesus says that they are not to go running off performing and doing better than everyone else. They are to serve others and help them along. Above all, Jesus seems to say: You must learn to allow me serve you; the kingdom is not about how well you do, but about how you allow me to do well for you; the kingdom is not about putting forth an effort acceptable to God; the kingdom is about accepting the effort put forth by God. In so many ways the apostles are trying to pay the right price and what they must learn is that the price can only be paid for them. They do not put up the ransom; Jesus will give his life as a ransom for many.
In one way of reading James and John just sound dumb. In another way they sound headstrong and hyper-vigilant. Either way they are the opposite of humble and so similar to us. Yet I get the impression that Jesus is truly glad that they have asked the question. It becomes a teaching moment.
What do you want me to do for you? Ask me. Tell me who you are. Tell me what you want and need. Come to me. Bring me your heart’s desire. Let me serve you. Let me pay the price for you. This is the response of our Lord to all our questions, even those that are dumb or headstrong. He delights in our asking because, in our asking, we become ready for him, we enter the subject of our salvation. The response of our Lord is not that we should go off and think of a better question. The response of our Lord is to draw us closer to him.
Yet, maybe we never ask. Maybe we are so busy trying to have the answer that we don’t ask the question. Sometimes, perhaps, our prayers are too perfect. When they are so well prepared and calculated, perhaps we hold God at a distance. When we are raw and broken we ask for anything but when we are well and comfortable we ask for little. Our prayers can be places where we are far from humble, places where we are trying to perform, places where we are focused more on our will that the will of the Lord.
One thing seems certain about salvation: you don’t have to ask for it in just the right way, but you do have to ask for it. Are you asking or are you too busy trying to get there yourself? The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. In your actions and in your prayers, who is paying your way? Is it you? Or is it the Lord? Ask for the Lord’s presence and it will surely come.