(Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2009 || Proper 24, Year B, RCL || Mark 10:35-45)
Here we go again. A month has passed since my last sermon delivered to you. A chapter has passed in the Gospel According to Mark. And Jesus has passed through Capernaum on his way to Jericho and then on to Jerusalem for his final days. In the Gospel lesson four weeks ago, the disciples argued about which one of them was the greatest. In response, Jesus placed a small child in their midst and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In today’s Gospel lesson, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, get a little more specific in their quest for greatness: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In response, Jesus repeats himself (I imagine, with some exasperation), “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all.” And so I say, here we go again.
The disciples exhibit the eminently human habit of forgetting everything Jesus has been teaching them. And we love them for their poor memories because we can relate. But Jesus matches their eminently human forgetfulness with eminently divine patience. Jesus could say, “Didn’t you take notes last month? No?! Well, then get them from someone who was paying attention.” Instead, Jesus reiterates his message and offers us the opportunity to dive more deeply into his words.
Don’t worry: I’m not going to repeat my sermon about the linear model turning into the circular one, and I’m not going to use any examples from fourth grade. Rather, today’s Gospel lesson, in conjunction with the other lessons, helps us explore the roots of the two models. The linear model, in which hierarchical disparity perpetuates a “me first, you last” attitude, finds its roots in presumptive arrogance. The circular model, in which relational expectations lead to a “you before me makes us better” attitude, finds its roots in unassuming obedience. Thus, the giving up of the linear model for the circular necessitates a move from arrogance to obedience.
Let’s look at arrogance first. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, preface their request with these words: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Right away, we know something is out of joint. The brothers attempt to get Jesus’ consent before they make their appeal known. Every parent out there knows that a child only employs this tactic if the request is unlikely to garner agreement. Earlier in the Gospel According to Mark, Herod makes the rookie mistake of swearing to his daughter to give her whatever she asks, and John the Baptizer turns up minus one head.
But Jesus makes no such mistake. He’s on to James and John from the start. “What is it you want me to do for you,” he says. Foiled in their search for premature commitment, the brothers soldier on and ask to sit on either side of Jesus in his glory. And here, Jesus exposes their arrogance by saying, “You do not know what you are asking.” In other words: You have no clue what you are talking about. Haven’t you been listening to me? Are you read to drink my cup? I’m about to die a gruesome death. This isn’t a Sunday stroll. If you knew what you were getting yourselves into, you would never have asked.
In their arrogance, James and John expect their request will be fulfilled on their terms. Sitting on Jesus’ right and left hands is as easy as asking him. The brothers do not contemplate the consequences of their appeal because, in their arrogance, they see none. Arrogance is a delusion of grandeur, a state of mind borne out of misplaced, narcissistic superiority. Arrogance assumes that the world works according to the expectations of the arrogant. But Jesus attempts to puncture the brothers’ delusion by reminding them of the very real consequences of their request. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,” he asks. Their terse reply of “We are able” shows more deluded arrogance – they are able to say the words, but their comprehension of the weight of those words leaves much to doubt.
The arrogant worldview, which conforms to the reality of narcissistic desire, has contributed to most, if not all, of the world’s worst sins: the enslavement and degradation of other races; the destruction of the environment for purposes of insatiable consumption; the apathy for the plight of others masked as laudable self-interest; the horror of war. In all of these, arrogance leads to the objectifying of some nebulous other in order to maintain the narcissistic reality. Everything is fodder, every person a pawn.
In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, God reminds Job that this deluded, arrogant worldview is far from reality. The writer does this in a rather snarky way, by having God interrogate Job on subjects, about which Job can know nothing. God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!” This continues for a few pages, but you get the picture. God reminds Job that reality and Job’s delusion of reality are two different things. The implication is this: only the arrogant assume they know enough about creation to substitute for the Creator.
God’s interrogation of Job calls us out of our arrogance. Of course, we weren’t there when God laid the foundation of the earth. Much like James and John, who arrogantly assume their own primacy, we often forget that we aren’t the centers of our own universes. When we accept the grace from God to look past our delusions, we begin to grasp the other way to live. We begin to see that our own narcissistic realities pale in comparison to the harmony, radiance, and joy of God’s reality. And we begin to realize that obedience to God is our participation in this reality.
The word “obedience” is much maligned, so we must quickly reassemble its meaning. Banish from your minds the thought of canine “obedience” school or the memory of a ruler to the back of your hand to teach “obedience.” Obedience relies neither on the carrot nor the stick because obedience exists on a plane apart from reward and punishment. True obedience comprehends listening for God’s call and having the courage to act on that call. Obedience is shorthand for “resonance with God’s movement.” When we are tuned to God’s presence, we vibrate with all the vibrancy that God’s love could offer to us.
But obedience is difficult because arrogance beckons and pulls us back to our easy, little realities. According to the Letter to the Hebrews this morning, Jesus had to learn “obedience through what he suffered.” Because of his suffering, because of his obedience, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” for all who desire to resonate with him.
This obedience, this resonance, finds its deepest expression in Jesus’ words to his disciples following James and John’s request. First, he reminds them of the arrogance of the world: the rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” The tyrant is the prime example of the arrogant worldview. “But,” Jesus continues, “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 servant of all.” Then, he uses himself as a paradigm: “For the Son of Man came not be served but to serve.”
We serve because Jesus served. We resonate with Christ most readily when we are serving others, when we are looking upon that nebulous other and seeing not a pawn, but a companion. We move from arrogance to obedience when we include in our realities the people who don’t fit and the consequences that we ignore. As the shells of our realities fade to reveal God’s greater reality, we realize how small were the lives we lived in our arrogance. We discover, somewhat paradoxically, how much more freedom exists in our obedience.
In that freedom, we will find joy and suffering, especially as we look with love upon the other. In that freedom, we will find grief and hope, because both are antidotes for narcissism. In that freedom, we will find the faith of the One who calls us to obedience. And we will walk in the confidence of that faith as God continues to peal away our arrogance to reveal beautiful, resonant, radiant children of God.