Mark 10:35-45 “Having the ‘I Wants’”
Now that the weather is finally predicted to cool off and the end of baseball season is in sight, our thoughts naturally turn to the holidays ahead. In Target this weekend, I saw side-by-side displays of Halloween costumes next to racks of Christmas cards and decorations. Sometimes it seems that all we do is run from one celebration to another, with frequent stops at the store for more stuff we want: a pumpkin for the front door, a turkey big enough to feed the family (or even better, for someone else to cook it), the perfect Christmas tree. And it comes on so quickly: 10 days to Halloween, 1 month to Thanksgiving, just over 60 days to Christmas.
When I was a child, my family had a very particular ritual at Thanksgiving. We gathered at my aunt’s house for our celebration, and everyone had their job to do: my aunt Anne made the turkey and the rolls, my mother brought ham and vegetables, my cousins made the mashed potatoes with cheddar, pecan pie, and green bean casserole. As we grew older, my sister and I began to contribute cookies and cakes for dessert and now macaroni & cheese and To-furkey for my brother-in-law the vegetarian.
After the blessing (“everyone say something you’re thankful for”), a huge meal and a lot of loitering around the table, we would move into the living room for the “real” work of Thanksgiving: the writing of the Christmas lists. No one was allowed to leave the house without making their list. Paper and pens were provided, as were multiple copies of the day’s paper, complete with sale ads, and whatever catalogs had come in the mail that week. Only occasional glimpses at the TV were permitted, unless the Redskins were doing well (rare), until everyone’s list was turned in to my aunt, who distributed them. Then, and only then, could the football-watching and socializing, the thankfulness and general merriment, resume, after we had decided what “I want” for Christmas.
It is the “human condition” (we sometimes call it “sin”) that makes us susceptible to the “I wants”. Now, admittedly, our family Thanksgivings made an Olympic event of the “I wants”, but they are hardly unique to my family. Those displays in Target and Wal-Mart, in every mall and sale circular, are designed to cause a seasonal flare-up of this disease, but we all get it sometimes. I saw a commercial recently showing 2 guys on a fishing pier. One fisherman asks the other, “What are you fishing for?” As the camera pans over to the forest of fishing rods next to the second man, he answers, “I want it all.” Heading into Christmas, our culture seems to lead us to say the same thing: “I want it all.”
Seems like there’s always something to want. How many of us spend our prayer times telling God what we want God to do? Even the disciples, who presumably knew Jesus better than everyone, who heard him preach about generosity of heart and of pocket, who saw his healings and witnessed the power of God in Jesus Christ, even they sometimes got the “I wants”. In today’s passage, two of the disciples go to Jesus with an “I want.” In fact, they tell him, “I want it all.”
Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing blind men…men who could not see, and then he healed them and they could see clearly that here was God’s Son. The disciples don’t seem to have understood this, proving the old adage that “there are none so blind as those who will not see.” Just goes to show there are even puns in the Bible…which means we’ll never get Eric to stop. Two of these willfully blind disciples came to Jesus and asked, audaciously, “Jesus, teacher,” (a little respectful spin, if you please), “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” I mean, BOLD! James and John were asking for carte blanche…from the Messiah, the Son of God, the one for whom, as Eric reminded us last week, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. Who would have the nerve to do such a thing? Who could be bold enough, brave enough, foolish enough, to ask this of Jesus? Only one (or two) who do not know what it is they are really asking for, or from whom they are asking it.
“Lord, we want to share in your glory at the end of all this.” What a request! One brother to sit at Jesus’ right hand, and one at the left. Makes you wonder if calling them “sons of thunder” had less to do with their father Zebedee and more to do with a fear that lightning might strike these bold and foolish men…but I digress. James and John want reassurance that not only are they among the favored few disciples, but that they will have top rank when Jesus “comes into his kingdom”. They want to be sure they really are his favorites, and that others will see that they are close to Jesus.
Jesus does not strike them dead, even though he probably wanted to, for asking so much of him. Instead he asks, perhaps with a little gleam in his eye, “But can you share in my end?” These guys were thinking about “the end of all this” being when Jesus came into his power. Never mind that they have seen Jesus’ power work again and again to transform lives and heal the sick, disabled, the broken in mind and spirit. Never mind that the Jesus they have followed, traveled with, lived with, has demonstrated the power of God over and over again. When he comes into his power, they want to be there, seated right up next to Jesus as he rules over the world. They wanted to be favored above all others when Jesus came into his glory…but they had no clue, despite being told by Jesus, what that end might look like.
Jesus asked them, “Can you drink the cup I drink, and be baptized with my baptism?” It’s a trick question. John and James, the sons of thunder, likely thought back to the cup of blessing at a banquet, a celebratory toast rather than God’s cup of suffering, poured out for them, for us, and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Sound familiar? But Jesus knows that the cup ahead of him will be bitter, as he looks ahead to his end on earth: the Cross. They thought that a baptism was a water bath, a purifying ritual, but Jesus knows that he is asking them to be baptized into his suffering and death, as well as into his resurrection…They can’t see because they are blinded by the “I wants”.
Now, before we condemn these two bold fools too much, let’s remember that Mark paints all the disciples this way. Even Peter’s occasional flash of brilliance is marred by his own inability to live into the truth he sees. And all James and John were doing was asking for what every disciple wanted. They were merely giving voice to the “I want” to be recognized, “I want” to be singled out as special, “I want” to have their contributions recognized as pivotal to the kingdom of God. Probably each one could have said, “Lord, I want to be glorified with you.” That’s why the ten other disciples were angry with James and John... “who says they get to be first among us in the end?” Still, they do not have the same understanding of “the end” as Jesus.
They are all missing the point, or points: First, that the Kingdom of God does not operate on a zero-sum economy, second, that the choice is not Jesus’ to make as to who will be seated beside him in heaven, and third, that the choice Jesus asks them to make when he asks, “are you able?” is not the choice they think they are making when they say, “yes, Lord, we are able.”
James and John, and the ten, still don’t quite get who Jesus is at this point. Calling himself the Son of Man doesn’t get his point across. Restoring sight to the blind doesn’t get his point across. Telling them point blank that he must suffer and die does not get his point across. They cannot see what they don’t want to see, and they do not understand how the Messiah could have to suffer and die in order to reign victorious over all things. As Mark tells it, they can’t get past “I want Israel to be restored” to see that Jesus has come as the Messiah to restore all God’s people to full and right relationship with God. And so they do misunderstand the cup Jesus is to drink to be one of celebration, and not of bitter suffering and death. They misunderstand Jesus’ baptism to be more of a cleansing bath than a baptism of blood on the Cross. And they misunderstand Jesus’ glory to be an earthly reign in an earthly kingdom, instead of the salvation of God’s people, restored at an infinite cost as sin and death are conquered. Yes, they think they are able…but they don’t know what they are saying they are able to do.
Jesus also points out that the choice is not his to make as to who sits at his right hand and at his left in the seats of honor. “I want to sit there” is not an argument that will sway the mind of God. The place of honor is given to the one for whom it has been prepared. It’s not for Jesus to say who that might be. Jesus reminds us that this is not an earthly kingdom they were dealing with, but the kingdom of God. This is a simple point, and simply disposed of.
And then there’s this business of the upside-down economy of the kingdom of God. What Jesus has done is take John and James’ request and recast it, for us who have a little longer view, into this upside-down view. The Gentiles (those who do not follow God) have leaders who are tyrants, but it should not be this way among God’s faithful people. “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, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” To be a leader in the Kingdom is to serve others, and the key to greatness is to devote one’s whole life to service. As I said before, this is not a zero-sum proposition.
Think of it like this: you should all have received by now a crayon. If you wanted to color a picture, you could make it a monochromatic masterpiece of all blue or red or whatever color you have, or you could find someone and offer to trade crayons. At the end of this trade, you have a crayon and your partner has a crayon. For you to have two crayons means some one has to have no crayon. This is a zero-sum transaction: between you and the person sitting next to you, there are only two crayons. No matter how you shuffle them around, there will only be two crayons. For someone to have plenty, someone else must go short. This “economy” if you will, is defined by limitations and scarcity. There are only so many crayons to go around, and one person’s abundance comes at someone else’s expense.
The kingdom of God that Jesus is talking about, on the other hand, is not a zero-sum economy. It is not defined by scarcity but by abundance. To put it another way, sometimes I thank God when I pray that in this church fellowship of prayer that we have as a gift from God, our burdens are shared and become lighter as we share them. That’s a zero-sum idea: there’s only so much burden to go around, so sharing them sort of divides our burdens making them somewhat less.
On the other hand, I also thank God that in this wonderful church family (and I’m speaking of the extended “great cloud of witnesses” version here), our joys are multiplied as we share them. This is God’s way of taking our human fear of scarcity: that places in heaven will be scarce, that God’s love and grace are limited, that there is not room enough for all of us at the feet of God, and turning it upside down, so that we can see how rich, abundant, full, and never ending God’s love is.
In the kingdom of God, serving and sharing mean that instead of me giving you my crayon in exchange for yours and calling that sharing, together we can all put together what we have and have together all the colors, all the blessings, all the love, and all the grace of God. It’s the difference between a single piece of glass and a beautiful stained glass window.
When we share in God’s economy, we all come out ahead and no one loses out. There’s no need to wonder who will have the place of honor, for we can share in God’s honor and glory. And there’s no need to fight over firsts and lasts, because we are all working for everyone’s good, not our own. It’s not about “I want” more, I want stuff, I want this or that. Instead it’s about “we have” and “God is”. It’s about how God’s love grows in the sharing, and how the stories of our faith become stronger and more meaningful in the telling. My faith, my story, my relationship with God doesn’t lessen yours…it makes them both richer.
What James and John and the rest of the disciples don’t seem to understand is that God’s love extends beyond the boundaries we want to set. For Jesus to heal one person doesn’t deprive another of health. For God’s grace to be offered to one of us doesn’t mean that another receives less. For the Spirit of God to live within one of us doesn’t deny another the Spirit in their own lives. In fact, rather than losing out when Jesus’ kingdom grows, our love and faith grow as well. God’s love is never stretched thin…it never breaks…and it never ends. One person’s I want: healing, love, grace, forgiveness, adds to all of the healing, love, grace and forgiveness we have all received. It’s no longer about what I want, but about the matchless grace and true power of Jesus Christ in the lives of all-too-human people.
The “I want” lists we used to make at Christmas have passed away. I wish I could say that we’d matured out of them, but I don’t really think that’s true. I think we aged out of them, but who knows…now that Mom’s got a grandchild, we may start again. It’s a good thing that’s not how God’s kingdom works, where all the I wants are meant for the good of all…Lord, I want to live like you. I want to love like you. I want to be more like you. Amen.