5th Sunday in Lent
- Lent 5.21 “Great!” Mark 10:35-45
James and John finally cotton on to the power of prayer in our Gospel today. It only took them about 2.9 years with Jesus, and a goodly number of miracles performed by him, and several discourses on prayer that conclude with “whatever you ask in my name I will give you”; finally, today they go, “Hey! The power of prayer! Jesus keeps saying he’ll give us whatever we ask in his name, so why don’t we ask to be greatest in the Kingdom (next to him, of course!) his right hand men? It will bring Peter down a peg or two, and the rest will be like “Duh! Why didn’t we think of that?”
It’s a great idea, right? What could go wrong?
Their approach is perfect. “Hey, Jesus: do for us whatever we ask you.” Jesus smirks. “What? You want me to paint your house?” “Oh, we see what you did there. Funny. No, grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Jesus says, “OK, nice ask, but are you sure about this? Remember how your mom told you to be careful what you ask for, that you just might get it? Recall the old story about the dog catching the car. You really don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I’m baptized with?”
They go, “We are ready, willing, and able.” And Jesus is like “Done! You’ll drink my cup and be baptized with my baptism, but… to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, because those spots are already reserved by my Father.” James and John go “Huh?” and feel they’ve been tricked. The ten are indignant and feel they’ve been demoted.
But Jesus goes, “huddle up, team: power of prayer, Episode 9, ‘The Right Ask’. James and John want to be the greatest in the Kingdom (next to me, of course). But instead of just asking for that, they go all Episcopalian, King Jamesey. ‘Lord; grant us to sit at your right hand and your left in your glory.’ Which is not the same thing, at all. To be great, in my House, is not like the bossmen rulers of the Gentiles lording it over everyone, like Caesar, Trump, or Biden. Nah; whoever would be great in my kingdom must be slave of all; even I came not to be served but to be servant leader, ransoming many…”
And the disciples go, “Huh?”
You go, “Huh? What just happened there?” Well…how does Jesus commending slavery sound to you? “Not so great, Bob!” It didn’t sound great to the Apostles, either. As devout Jews, they still remember 400 years slavery in Egypt, 70 years in Babylon, and they weren’t exactly free in 1st century Rome. Slavery sounds even worser to Americans…
I heard a charming story about a 2nd grader. Her classmates were making leprechaun houses for St. Patrick’s day, to catch one and get a wish. But she had done nothing on her house. The teacher says, “Cecilia: why don’t we put some moss in your house? What could we use to lure a leprechaun into the trap?” And the girl goes: “Oh, I don’t want to trap him. I want him to be free.” She’d been questioning the narrative; didn’t see why, just because leprechauns are an alien species—small, rich, green, and magical—how that’s any justification for enslaving them! Slavery is bad, dontcha know?!
I think she was just saying what we were all thinking, reading through this Gospel lesson. The thought crossed my mind: “Jesus! Have you been paying attention to recent history? Slavery was a tough sell in the long, long ago, but impossible even to mention in contemporary America!” I seriously considered just preaching on the OT reading. But you ritely [sic] expect me to tackle the tough subjects. So here goes…
Maybe as offensive to modern sensibilities as the commendation of slavery is that Jesus does not rebuke his disciples for chasing greatness. For Jesus, humility doesn’t seem an End in itself; it’s simply the finest means for flaunting true greatness—something we should all be chasing, all the time. James and John are on the right track, just going the wrong way.
For us, ideas of greatness and freedom go hand in glove—as modern Americans (and ancient Jews and Greeks!). We take it as axiomatic that to be free and to be great are two sides of the same gold coin (and, speaking of gold, being rich is probably the third party in that love triangle [another leprechaun reference here would be nice, but I couldn’t come up with anything, sorry. I’m still getting the hop back on my high, hard one, homiletically speaking].
Anyway; Jesus turns all the common ideas of greatness, freedom, riches on their ear, along with the truth, beauty, and goodness ones. He does this by the cross. It’s what Jesus and Co. talk about when they talk about greatness: Jesus has just told them he will be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed; and after three days, rise. It’s why James and John thought: “Well, if he’s going away, we’d better get our ask in right now.”
If the Lord God, King of the Universe, Ruler of All, shows his greatness by becoming an ordinary-seeming carpenter-rabbi, teaching and eating with the lost and least, and dying on a cross as a common criminal, scorned and hated by all, then greatness—majesty, freedom, riches, love, beauty, truth, and goodness all need a serious re-think!
Which is exactly what the Greek word μετανοια that we translate “repentance” means. To re-think! It’s what Lent is all about…
I suppose we think (I do, quite often!) that the sufferings and shame of the cross are just a phase—like 5 more weeks of winter—that we go through, before the regularly scheduled spring of glory, laud, honor, and bossing others around begins, afresh. But…no. The cross is the glory of God. It is the supreme moment. And those at his right hand and left when he died, so gloriously, were insurrectionist thieves who’d earned those spots by a life of crime.
Weird, that it’s only a life of crime that gets you to that place on the cross next to Jesus where the serious re-think of your life can happen?! All the bad brought you to this glorious good. God makes something out of nothing—even saints out of sinners. It’s his signature move. Not that sin is good, but that God shows his Power by making something great out of the very worst…
And if we get to glory by the shame of the cross, it is to be expected that a Life as Slaves would be the way to flaunt our new-found, throughly re-thought greatness, right? The powerful of earth need the trappings of power, need to be bosses to look good. But Jesus shows divine power on the cross, being bossed by all, yet ruling all! It’s like Maximus the slave/general in Gladiator dying in the arena, bringing down the evil emperor Commodus, demonstrating how real power can make even ignoble death something truly great.
So we go, on our Lenten Way, with Jesus. Disguised as slaves, like Strider or Maximus, no jail or drudgery too difficult to phase us, no trap that will not draw us closer to Christ, no shame that can’t reflect the glory of his name; just so, we reflect a little bit of that divine greatness that turns slavery into freedom, crosses into thrones, and weakness into real Power.
At his Table here, now, we eat his body, drink his blood, to the End that—captivated by his life and his death, drawn to his cross—we would find in such slavery true greatness. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.