October 17, 2021, From Riches to Rags, Mark 10:32-45 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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James and John were sons of a family of fishermen in Bethsaida, on the coast by the sea of Galilee. Along with Peter, they were the first disciples to be called by Jesus. Peter, James and John formed a kind of “inner circle” among the Twelve apostles, Jesus’s closest friends. It was Peter, James and John who accompanied Jesus up on the mountain when he was revealed in all his glory. It was only Peter, James and John who went into Jairus’ house with Jesus, where they saw him raise a little girl from the dead. And it was Peter, James and John who accompanied Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane when he went to pray before his Passion.
Jesus gave James and John the nickname “Sons of Thunder,” presumably because they were such hotheads. Once when some Samaritan villagers turned the disciples away, James and John offered to call down fire from heaven to show them who was boss. But we also know that they were faithful servants of God and his people, serving in humility and courage as they were called. James was the first disciple to be martyred for his faith, put to death by the sword, by order of King Herod. John took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his home, after the crucifixion, caring for her as his own mother. He lived to be a very old man, an elder in the Church, teaching the people about the love of God.
But as young men, James and John, these close friends of Jesus, really struggled to understand what Jesus was teaching them as they made their final journey to Jerusalem. You might have noticed that over just the last six Sundays, following along the gospel readings from Mark’s gospel, Jesus has told the disciples three times, plainly, what was about to happen to him – that he would be arrested, that he would be executed, and also that he would rise again after his death. However the other disciples were making sense of that, it’s pretty clear that James and John at least were convinced that Jesus’s real plan was to sweep in and reclaim Jerusalem, and send the Romans packing. And when that happened, they meant to have places of honor – seeing as they were two-thirds of Jesus’s inner circle, after all. Now, the sons of Zebedee might have been hotheads, they might have been a little full of themselves, but they were no cowards. They were willing to suffer whatever they needed to suffer. They were ready to take all the risks. But they meant to be there when the glory happened.
It’s pretty obvious that John and James and the other disciples weren’t really hearing what Jesus was saying to them. And at the heart of this failure of comprehension, not just for James and John, but for every one of the Twelve, was the problem of ambition. James and John, Peter and all the rest, had left everything behind – family, security, comfort, everything they’d ever known. They had staked absolutely everything on their faith that Jesus was the one God had promised to send, the one Israel had been waiting for, for centuries, the Messiah who would save his people from their enemies. They believed Jesus was the Messiah, and they had very definite expectations for what that meant. Specifically, they had very definite ideas of the greatness that belonged to the Messiah of God.
The first time Jesus tried to tell the disciples what was ahead of them, Peter took him aside to scold him. This talk of arrests and killings didn’t fit in at all with the greatness that belonged to the Messiah. You’re getting it all wrong, Peter tried to tell Jesus, and got a pretty sharp rebuke in return. The second time Jesus told them they were still confused and bewildered by it all, but after what had happened to Peter nobody dared to question Jesus. Instead, they argued quietly among themselves about which of them was the greatest. They were so sure of who Jesus was that they just knew they were on the road to greatness, and of course each of them wanted to be the greatest. Finally, we read today how Jesus told them what was ahead of them for the third time, in the most painful detail, the betrayal, the humiliation, the spitting, the whipping, the crucifixion – and the rising again. The disciples still couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying, but this time James and John decided to be pro-active. They took their ambition in hand and they asked Jesus for special places of greatness when it was time for all this greatness to be revealed at long last. Their faith in who Jesus was, was very strong. Their problem was that they only understood greatness on the world’s terms.
This is how it looked from their viewpoint: twelve men, a few common fishermen, a despised tax collector, a religious fanatic and who knows what else, had somehow, incredibly, unbelievably, found themselves the acolytes of Israel’s Messiah. If there were ever a rags to riches story in the history of the world, surely this had to top the charts. Despite having to endure some hunger and rough living, and some backlash from the religious establishment, they knew they were on the road to greatness. Hadn’t they seen Jesus make the blind see, and the deaf hear, and the lame walk? Hadn’t they been at his side as he commanded evil spirits and calmed the waves of a stormy sea? Hadn’t they seen Jesus raise the dead?
They had faith in Jesus as their Master and Lord, but what they still had to learn was that the way of his kingdom is nothing like the world they had always known – that greatness in the kingdom of God doesn’t look anything like greatness in the world of men. They thought they knew pretty much all there was to know about greatness. They’d been overshadowed by great men their whole lives. There were the synagogue rulers, wise men respected by the community. There were the Scribes and the Pharisees and the High Priest himself, learned and righteous, admired and feared. There were the Roman centurions, all too many of them, armed and armored and fearless, representatives of the even greater greatness of the Emperor. James and John, Peter and the rest, they thought that now surely the time had come for them to have a turn at greatness. Here they were, twelve common, uneducated men, but chosen by the greatest one of all. Rags to riches.
And no matter how many times Jesus told them, plainly, in the most brutal detail, about the way of the Cross that awaited him, they still couldn’t grasp this upside-down kingdom where greatness was service, where weakness was strength, where loss was gain, where losing your life was the only way to real life. Riches to rags – in the upside-down kingdom of their Master, that was the way to real greatness. And that was so important for the disciples to understand, that at the last meal Jesus shared with them, he acted it out. As they all took their places around the table that night, Jesus got up. He took off his outer garment, and he wrapped a towel around his waist like a household slave. And taking a basin of water, he knelt at the dirty feet of his disciples and began to wash them. You remember the story. They were horrified. They were embarrassed. But it changed forever the way they understood greatness. “You call me Master and Lord,” Jesus said to them, “and you’re right, that’s what I am. Now, if I, your Master and Lord, have washed your feet, you go and do the same. I have given you an example, so that you can do as I have done. No servant is greater than his Master,” he told them. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
Jesus was walking the way of the Cross, which is the way of loss and suffering and death. But it is the great mystery of his kingdom that the way of the Cross is the only way of real greatness, and of true joy, and of abundant life. Philip Yancey, in the book, The Jesus I Never Knew, writes this:
“My career as a journalist has afforded me opportunities to interview “stars,” NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, best-selling authors, politicians, and TV personalities. These are the people who dominate the media. We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use. Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, I have found [this] principle to hold true: our “idols” are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are incurably dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by self-doubt.
“I have also spent time with people I call “servants.” Doctors and nurses who work among…leprosy patients in rural India. A Princeton graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago. Health workers who have left high-paying jobs to serve in a backwater town of Mississippi. Relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and other repositories of human suffering…
“I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not prepared to envy them. Yet as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. Without question, I would rather spend time among the servants than among the stars: they possess qualities of depth and richness and even joy that I have not found elsewhere. Servants work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them.”
It’s something the Spirit of Jesus is teaching us throughout our lives, if we’re listening. As we grow older, don’t we see that the greatness the world holds out to us seems more and more empty and worthless? And worse than worthless – wealth and fame and influence and possessions very soon become nothing more than gilded cages that enslave us instead of bringing us joy or freedom. But letting go of our possessions, giving ourselves in service to others, bringing someone comfort or maybe just sitting with them in their suffering, these are the things that fill us with real joy. These are the things that set us free. These are the stuff of greatness.
As an old man, John, son of Zebedee, knew that greatness in the kingdom of God is not power, or wealth, or possessions, but love – the kind of love he had found in his Lord and Master and friend. “By this we know love,” he wrote to the churches, “that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Riches – to rags – to life. That is greatness in the kingdom of God.