A Race to the Bottom

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 29
October 17, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: James and John ask Jesus to "do whatever they ask of him." Jesus uses their asking for places of honor in the kingdom as an opportunity to talk about true discipleship, which is seen not in positions of glory, but in places of service. Indeed, for followers of Christ, it is a "race to the bottom" - not seeking to be recognized so much as to be in service for God.

Two kids are walking along, and one says, "Come on, I'll race you to that tree!" And off they go, running for all they're worth as one of them just edges out the other. "I win!" he declares. And the other kid says, "I'll get you next time!" And they continue walking along ... best friends.

Most of us remember instances like that. Walking to school, playing outside the house, enjoying a pick-up game of baseball or basketball, calling "Shotgun" as you and your siblings were walking to the car. Today, it might be, "I can write this [computer] code quicker than you can," and their fingers fly over their keyboards. "Next time," one of them says. As long as kids play together, there will be these little contests and competitions. It's part of growing up - as kids learn about themselves, about their strengths and weaknesses and about their likes and dislikes, about what makes them happy or sad, about what gives them a sense of satisfaction.

But somewhere along the way, things sometimes get out of whack. "Games" are no longer games. Winning the race becomes more important than how you win or more important than the person you're running against. When that happens, all sorts of troubles begin. Think about the "me first"" mentality all around us. Think about politics and the nastiness that often goes with it. Look at unfair business practices that come to light, so much and so often that we are hardly surprised by them anymore. Think of the heartache in personal relationships when "me first" predominates.

Why do these things happen? Because we want to win! Because we want to be first in line! Because we want to get noticed, we want to succeed (regardless of the cost) and we want it all now! Indeed, it's easy in competitions for it all to get distorted.

Our scripture today gives us an example of how easily two disciples fell into this kind of thinking, and Jesus' answer to them ... and Jesus' answer to us.

James and John, and Jesus

By the time we come to today's scripture in Mark, Jesus has told his disciples three times about his death and resurrection.1 Three times! And yet, with those pronouncements ringing in their ears, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus and say, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

Jesus had every right to say to them, "And I would do that why?"

Instead, Jesus says to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?"

The brothers answer Jesus, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

Again, Jesus had every right to dismiss their question, "And I would do that why?"

But instead, Jesus answers them and says, "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?" The brothers replied, "We are able." Their answer, which comes so easily from them, is ill informed. They think the cup and the baptism will be easy and glorious. In fact, it will cost them their lives.

Paul would later say, "... and if children [of God], then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."2

Jesus goes on to explain to James and John that what they asked for they would receive in a very different way from what they imagined. He also told them "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."

The indignant 10

When the other disciples heard the request by James and John, they were angry and indignant - perhaps because James and John beat them to the punch in asking for such a thing. But Jesus took this in stride and spoke to all the disciples.

He began by giving an example from the Gentiles. "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." Jesus took the example from the world they knew and the enemies they hated. Perhaps they were expecting him to go on and give the condemnation these Gentiles deserved.

But, instead, Jesus turned the conversation to all 12 of his disciples. "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."

The Twelve must have been wondering what just happened. James and John got put in their place, so the other 10 "piled on" with their indignant objections. Then Jesus put all 12 "in their place." As he had been doing all during his ministry, Jesus turned things upside down - which was exactly as they should be in the kingdom of God Jesus ushered in.

The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve ...

Finally, Jesus taught the Twelve, and us, from his own life. "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." In one short, clear sentence, Jesus laid out his purpose for leaving the glory of heaven and coming to earth as a man.

More of the story

While the scripture for this week ends at Mark 10:45, it is worth looking at the very next incident in Mark 10. Mark recounts the healing of blind Bartimaeus. As you read through this wonderful, life-changing account, you can almost hear Jesus' voice as he asks, "What do you want me to do for you?" Bartimaeus said to him, "'My teacher, let me see again.' Jesus said to him, 'Go, your faith has made you well.' Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way."3

Notice that Jesus used the very same question he had asked of James and John, "What do you want me to do for you?" Imagine if James and John had responded as Bartimaeus did, "Our teacher, let us see again." That is, if they had acknowledged their shortcomings and sins before Jesus and asked to see things as Jesus saw them! How different this passage might have been! Perhaps Jesus would have gathered the Twelve around him and rejoiced as he told them his purpose ("... not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many") knowing that his disciples understood and believed and walked in faith with him.

A race to the bottom

Now imagine a world where people live as Jesus asks us to live.

"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."

That language, particularly the "slave" reference, is hard to hear in 21st-century America. But while the language may need to be updated, the thought behind Jesus' words always ring true. For Christians, as we live out the mandate to be in service in God's name, it is really a race to the bottom ... not claiming the seats of honor at the right hand or left hand of God but looking for ways to lift up Christ as we seek to be in service to a world that desperately needs Jesus.

Let us follow our Lord and race to the bottom in service and love.