James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him 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.”
The easy lesson to draw from this passage is “be careful what you wish for.” James and John, of course, have no idea what Jesus means by the cup he will drink and the baptism with which he will be baptized. All they know is that they want to have places of honor and are sure they are up for whatever it takes to get there. Would they have been so eager had they known Jesus was talking about drinking a cup of suffering and being baptized into the cross?
The larger import of this passage, though, is more profound and comes in the verses that follow, as Jesus continues to explore and expound upon the distinct nature of his “anti-kingdom.” In this place, power is demonstrated through service, greatness is shown in vulnerability, and achievement comes through compassion.
Can you imagine, for just a moment, what the world would be like if our leaders behaved like this – vying with each other to see who could best serve the needs of the vulnerable, holding debates about the best way of coming in last so that others could come in first? It seems absurd.
Well, let’s make it a little easier…and harder. What if we lived like this – measuring our achievements not in terms of dollars or possessions but in terms of lives touched, or assessing our “net worth” not in terms of bank accounts but in terms of acts of compassion?
Suddenly, this passage, far from being absurd, is incredibly accessible, for any of us can serve another. From young to old, powerful to vulnerable, rich to poor, educated or not – anyone can act with kindness, put others first, and try to exercise compassion to those around them. So maybe we don’t need our leaders to set the example in order to change the world. Maybe this is something we can do in our homes, schools, places of work and volunteering and watch, indeed, as the kingdom comes among us.
Prayer: Dear God, give us eyes to see the need of others and hearts determined to help. In Jesus’ name, Amen.