James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but 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 a ransom for many.’
Imagine the situation and put yourself there as an observer. James and John asked Jesus if he would do something for them, and the response Jesus made was to say, ‘What would you like me to do for you?’ If Jesus said to you, ‘What would you like me to do for you?’, what would your answer be? I wonder how we would respond. We might think that we’d ask for something laudable, but in our more honest moments I wonder how many of us would be tempted to ask to have something for ourselves in the way that James and John did.
And if we had actually been there, what would we have thought of them? It seems the other disciples were angry with James and John, but I wonder why. Was it because they felt James and John had got it wrong, or was it because they imagined James and John to think that they were somehow better than the others; more deserving of power and authority?
What we find in this narrative is the old, old human story of people being driven to do something maybe unexpected or out of character because they’re haunted by a desire for a position of power and of recognition. I suspect that this comes especially to those who have formerly been powerless. It comes so naturally to so many humans that I suspect it’s built into our genome.
Certainly some of the other higher primates such as chimpanzees seem to be naturally drawn into fighting for positions of hierarchy. But I continue to find myself concerned with those who seek after power because I worry about what it’s going to cost the powerless. In the scramble for power, who gets left with the scraps?
It seems that examples of power being abused and the rich holding on to their wealth abound in the news. Two friends of mine are in support roles in primary school education. Both have had their hours cut by the government because of the need to save money.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that last year, Starbucks, a powerful and wealthy company, paid no tax into the UK economy last year. You may have heard of the economic idea called Trickledown whereby the government supports big business and the success of the big businesses trickles down to the little people who work on the shop floor. But if Starbucks managed to avoid paying any UK taxes last year, and the government cut the spending for the education of the littlest people of them all, our children, it seems like something isn’t working.
Jesus, James and John lived in a society where the gaps between the powerful rich and the powerless poor were even larger than they are today. The little people always stayed little and those in power tried very hard to hold on to it. In the face of that you have to wonder why two fishermen, James and John, asked Jesus if they could sit on his right and left in his glory. Hadn’t they seen enough of that to realise the issues with being corrupted by power?
We probably have to assume that the question was based in simply not being aware of an alternative to the hierarchy of rule because it was all they had seen in their religion and in their culture. And I think they had recognised something about Jesus. They had begun to realise that although he was living as a human, there was something very powerful about him; something of God about him. In my experience, if people want power but don’t have the abilities or the charisma to go and get it, then the next best thing is to cosy up to someone who already has it.
We can probably even remember this happening in the classroom. When we were at school there was always the popular child who had lots of people wanting to be friends with them. And likewise the unpopular people often don’t have many friends because being their friend associates you with being a loser. This is all because we think that if we make friends with the popular person then everyone will be friends with us too. I’m glad Jesus likes to be friends with losers.
The problem with this habit is that we keep it going into adulthood. If we want to rise up the corporate ladder, or if we want to be more important in our local community, then the easiest way to do that is to spot who is currently important, who is currently holding all the power, and try to get noticed by them. Being a part of the in-crowd opens the door for us to inherit power.
I think that’s what James and John were doing here. They knew that this life was transient, and that one day there will be a greater kingdom. And so they wanted to have power in this new kingdom and simply asked Jesus if he would give it to them. I don’t think their part of the world had ever come across the radical idea that Jesus was about to put to them.
So then Jesus makes a comment about politics. In effect he asks them to be observers and comment on the world they see around them. He points out how the rulers lord it over the people, and we have to ask ourselves, what has changed? The people in power and the wealthy big businesses go on making money for themselves and doing the best they can to make sure no one at the bottom of the pile gets any of it.
Meanwhile we have to watch cuts take place for the poor, the disabled and the children in our society. And Jesus says in response to James and John, ‘But it is not so among you’. In the church it’s supposed to be different. Whoever wants to lead can only learn to do so by being a servant. But I have to ask you, does it really look like that?
When we look down the church the two most obvious things are that the pews all point towards the front and there’s a high and elevated pulpit. In effect the very fabric of our church is saying, ‘Sit there in the pews and listen to someone who is so much better than you that when he preaches he’s literally standing six feet above contradiction, and you are forced to look up to him.
That’s one of the reasons why I often preach from the floor rather than the pulpit, and it’s why we always do the Well service in a circle of chairs. Now I do think things have improved dramatically. Some of the older people may remember a time when the pews in some churches had names on them, with the more important families sitting near the front.
The church looks like a hierarchy with the Bishops at the top, then the priests, then the readers, then the church wardens and finally the ordinary people. And Jesus looked at the powerful people and said to the disciples, ‘But it is not so among you.’ Unfortunately we seem to have forgotten what he said.
Yes, it is true that I’ve been trained and have put time and energy into learning about God so that I can help you all to learn about God and grow spiritually. But does that make me any better than you?
No, that is simply my calling, and you each have your own callings. But all of us are called by Jesus to serve others, and never, ever, ever to chase after power for ourselves. The world in which we live is full of people seeking power. But we are a part of an upside down kingdom where the leader is the servant of all the people. Isn’t it time we started to live like that?