35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A drug enforcement officer arrived one day unannounced at a ranch owned by an old man who didn’t have a lot to say. The officer knocked on the door and said, “Sir, we are making random stops on local farms and ranches looking for people who are growing drugs on their property. We are going to have a look around just to see if everything checks out.”
The old feller said, “Okay, just don’t go in that field over there.”
The officer reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and stuck it in the man’s face. He yelled, “Do you see this badge? It says that I’m an officer with the DEA, and I can go anywhere I darn-well want to, and I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. Do you hear me?”
The old feller nodded his head as he watched the officer climb a fence and enter into the field. Moments later he heard screams of “Help! Help me!” as the officer burst through the gate with a bull hot on his heels.
So the old man yelled, “Your badge! Show him your badge!”
Today we are talking about power. I realized that power is a reoccurring theme in the Bible, as are sex and money. With sex, power, and money as major themes, it’s surprising the more people don’t read the Bible todayJ.
As you may be aware, we often divide people up into two categories based on their personalities. We have “Type A” personalities and “Type B” personalities. People who are more competitive, ambitious, impatient, and aggressive are labeled “Type A,” while those who are more reserved, relaxed, and easy-going are considered “Type B.”
I never really thought about it before, but this week I heard someone self-identify as a Type A person, and I realized that a Type A person must have been the one who came up with this classification system. This is why the Type A person is called Type A and not Type B. The Type A person has to be first, so they would never allow their self to be called Type B. That’s second place!
I imagine the conversation between the two groups of people taking place. The Type A person decides that he is going to call his group Type A, to which the Type B person protests and says, “Why can’t we be the Type A group?” The Type A person replies, “Because I said so!” and the Type B person says okay and goes somewhere to read a book.
This typology is very binary, and it is likely that you have a little bit of both A and B in you. But you also probably lean more toward one than the other. I tend to be more of a Type B. I can get a little competitive, but more often than not I’m pretty chill. I played softball before our children were born and I remember being on a really bad team one year. We didn’t win very many games. One of my very good friends on that team was a pretty quiet guy and probably the best player on the team. I recall talking to him after a close game that we lost where I said, “We played a lot better than last week, even if we did lose. I would rather play well and lose than play poorly and win. Wouldn’t you?”
He disagreed. Strongly.
Today’s scripture tells us about a couple of Type A brothers named James and John. James and John are, along with Peter, a part of Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus takes these three disciples with him on several special outings. He takes them to the top of the mount of the Transfiguration. He takes them with him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray on the night he was betrayed.
Some people wonder if Jesus didn’t favor these disciples a bit over the other nine. I think Jesus just wanted to keep a closer eye on themJ.
James and John are called “Boanerges,” which we are told means “sons of thunder.” They are brash and they are bold. At one point James and John are sent ahead of Jesus into Samaria and the people there did not welcome the brothers. So what is the normal response when someone doesn’t welcome you into their city or home? Well, James and John ask Jesus, “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven and destroy them?”
Because that’s just what you do.
You have to think that Jesus is just there shaking his head. Have you been listening to anything that I have said? The sons of thunder have earned their nickname. They are the classic Type A personality, ratcheted up to a 10.
The sons of thunder are back at it in today’s passage. They find a time when they can get Jesus alone to ask a favor of him. Actually, they lead off with more of a statement than a request. They say, “Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
How bold is that! If I was in Jesus’ sandals, I would say, “Oh you do, do you?” But Jesus is better than I am, so he entertains their request and asks them what they would have him do. In verse 37 they say, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
I don’t know exactly what they had in mind as far as Jesus’ kingdom is concerned. But what is clear is that they are asking Jesus to promise them positions of authority when Jesus comes into power. You have heard of someone who is referred to as a “right hand man.” The seat to the right of a leader was considered to be a position of power and authority. The one sitting on the throne was the most powerful, but the king also gave power and authority to the person who sat to his side. Essentially, James and John are asking to be second and third in command. And they must think that they have a shot at getting into such a position because of all the attention Jesus has been giving them.
Jesus’ response is great. He says, “You don’t know what you are asking.”
Is it wrong to be a Type A person? Is it a sin to be aggressive and to want to succeed? And are power and authority something that we should really aspire to? I think that like so many other things, power, authority, and aggressive behavior can be bad, but they can also be good. It all comes down to your motivation.
I think we in the Mennonite Church have done a poor job over the last couple hundred years because we have just thrown a blanket statement out there condemning Type A personalities. We elevate humility, meekness, and servanthood, all of which don’t seem to go hand-in-hand with power and authority. But where did this teaching come from? We heard this from the bishops of the church, who as you might have guessed had a lot of power and authority! When a bishop stands up and says that you must not seek power and authority he is doing so out of the power and authority of his position as bishop.
This is where I want to start making some distinctions. If you are a driven individual who works hard, there is nothing at all wrong with that. Liking to win is just fine. But if you are looking to acquire power and authority simply so you can have power over other people, this misses the point. If you want to be the president of your corporation because you like to fire people and tell them to make your coffee, that isn’t Christ-like.
When James and John ask Jesus to grant them the positions to his right and left in his kingdom, they want to have power over people. This fits well with their personality that we see throughout the Gospels. Jesus goes on to say that the reason they want power is because they want to be like the Gentiles who lord over one another with power and authority.
Jesus continues in verses 43-44, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
Jesus is always saying stuff like this. Of course there is the verse that is always quoted as people stand in line at the church potluck, the first will be last and the last will be first. There is this reordering of things. Don’t strive to use your power to be out in front so everyone will admire you and fear you. No, instead be a servant. The word there is diakones, from which we get the churchy word, deacon.
Servants in Jesus’ day were not without any rights or respect. So Jesus takes it one step further and says that we must be “slaves” to all. A slave wouldn’t have had respect, honor, power or authority. They wouldn’t have even had many rights in Jesus’ day. But in the wake of this power struggle with James and John, Jesus says that his people will serve one another.
We Mennonites get this. Earlier this month we put on this little thing we like to call “The Relief Sale.” This year over a quarter million dollars came in, and that was down $80,000 from the year before. This event is put on by volunteer laborers who are already working on next year’s sale. People were up before the crack of dawn bbq-ing chicken, making donuts, and flipping pancakes. People logged hours binding quilts and trimming out woodworking projects. Some people even ran a 5k in the middle of a monsoon. And all of the proceeds go to feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, and clothe the naked.
We know a thing or two about service. We are one of the few traditions that still practices footwashing as a ritual. Most churches have communion, but they forget that before the meal Jesus also took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, and began washing the feet of his disciples. And then he handled the bread…yuck! Jesus told his disciples that they too must wash one another’s feet.
How strange was this event for the disciples? The one that they understood to be the Messiah was there doing the job of a servant. That’s an attention grabber, for sure! And verse 45 from today’s text seems to be leaning into that event in the Upper Room, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I like to study Christian ethics. Ethics is the study of how we should live. This can obviously get pretty complicated because believe it or not, we don’t all agree on this one. Even as Christians, you would have some who essentially say that you can do whatever you would like because we are saved by grace, not by our works. On the other end of the spectrum you have the strict disciplinarians who will condemn you to hell if you have ever smoked a cigarette. Yeah, I hope you like smoking, because you are going to be smoking for all eternity!
I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to name two reasons for living a certain way as Christians. One, I think we are called to live a certain way because it allows us to live the fullest life possible, the best life God has in store for us and for others. We forgive people because it is good for us. We don’t fight because fighting is hurts people. Loving people is good, hating is bad. Sharing our food and resources is good, being selfish is bad. Really, much of this is at the level a kindergartener could understand it. And when you get older, maybe get married, don’t have an affair. Don’t even lust for another woman or man. That’s good advice for anyone, regardless of if they are a Christian or not.
The other reason that we live a certain way is because it points to the kingdom of God. I believe that how we live is a witness to God and not only the kingdom that is to come, but the kingdom that is among us right now. Why do we love our enemies? Because God is love and one day there will be no more violence. Why feed the hungry and care for the sick? Because one day there will be no hunger or sickness.
So why do we serve one another as Christians? I think both of the reasons that I gave you apply. It is for our good and the good of our neighbor if we care for each other and serve one another. Life is so much easier when you have friends and neighbors that can help out in a pinch. Believe me, my wife has been away for a few days and I know what it means to need some help. Those who have offered their service have made my life better for a bit.
But we also serve each other as a sign of the kingdom of God that is both here and yet to come. The kingdom of God is not about having power over someone. It isn’t about dominating another people group and it sure isn’t about dominating your closest friends. James and John seemed to miss this. I hate to break it to some of you, but if you are planning to go to heaven and boss people around you are going to be disappointed.
When you have power over others, you can force them to do what you want. But when you serve someone, you can make the kingdom of God known.
A friend of mine leads a women’s Bible study at her church. She is very knowledgeable and experienced in matters of Christianity and though I’ve never been to one of her women’s Bible studies, I assume she is pretty good at it.
But last week she led a study on Ephesians 5, where we are told that women should submit to their husbands. This friend is not some radical, out-there, women’s lib activist. So I don’t imagine that she said anything too extreme. But a man came up to her the next Sunday and said, “I can’t believe you told our wives that they don’t need to do everything that we say.” And he wasn’t kidding.
We can have some good discussion on what Paul was talking about when he said for wives to submit to their husbands. But I sure hope nobody here thinks that Paul meant women have to do everything that their husbands say. In fact, if a husband says to do something that you believe is against the teachings of Christ, you have the responsibility to not do that! We must obey God rather than men!
The point that I am trying to make is Jesus calls us to be servants to one another, to lay down our lives for one another. And this means that we must not operate out of a “power over” mindset. This serving one another applies to husbands and it applies to wives. When someone sees you husbands serving your wife, they may call you less of a man. But you use that as an opportunity to witness to the kingdom of God.
It applies to bosses, and it applies to employees. If you are someone’s boss, wash their car sometime. And when they ask why, tell them it’s a kingdom thing.
It applies to pastors and it applies to parishioners. I realize that I have a certain amount of power and authority as your pastor. But I hope that when a kid throws up or spills their food that I will be the first person there with a bucket and rag.
Is it wrong to be aggressive, competitive, and an all-around Type A personality or to be in positions of power? No. I’d describe many of the people in the Bible as Type A. The issue is how we use power. Do we use power to dominate others, to use our power over others, or do we use our power to serve others for our mutual benefit and the manifestation of the kingdom? Because when people see those of us in positions of power serving others, they are glimpsing the kingdom of God.