Did you grow up with a brother? And if so, did you get along?
I had two brothers when I was a child, but there was a sister between each brother, and with a span of fifteen years between oldest and youngest, there wasn’t much fighting or competition between us brothers. I was by far the youngest, and my oldest brother was out of the house by the time I was five years old. He was an adventurer who took long solo canoe trips in the wilderness and favored me as a prop for his black and white photography experiments. He was the older, much wiser one who I looked up to with admiration.
The pages of the Bible are filled with a surprising number of stories about brothers, and the most memorable are about those at odds with one another. There’s Cain and Abel, a relationship that led to the first murder and the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jacob and Essau were in conflict even in utero, with one grabbing the heel of the other in a contest to be born first. Joseph had eleven brothers to contend with, most of whom were happy to sell him into slavery. A lot of people fantasize about doing such things to their siblings, but they actually did it.
In the Gospel of Mark, there are two brothers named James and John who are the offspring of an fisherman named Zebadee. They were among the lucky twelve chosen by Jesus to follow and observe and learn about the realm of God. John and James are the focus of today’s text in which Jesus speaks about true greatness. Despite their united front in making a highly presumptuous request of Jesus, they were very likely at the same time competing with one another for a position of prominence.
Three chapters of the relatively brief Gospel of Mark are given to describing a pattern of interaction between Jesus and the disciples. It goes like this: Jesus spoke about his upcoming death, and that was followed by an inappropriate response by one or more of the disciples, which was followed by a correction by Jesus which included a paradoxical statement: “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever will lose their life will save it.” Or “if someone wants to be first, they will be last.” And also “Whoever wants to be great – or first – will be your servant.”
In the middle of this repeated, ongoing discussion and series of corrections which must have been maddening to Jesus and caused him to wonder why he ever picked those particular men to be his disciples, a fight broke out while the twelve walked down a dusty road behind Jesus. The disciples were arguing over which of them was the greatest. Jesus asked what was going on back there. Sort of like a parent with kids fighting in the back seat of the car turning around and warning, “Don’t make me stop this car!” The disciples replied with silence, but Jesus already knew what they had been arguing about. It makes sense to me that the rivalry that often exists between siblings like James and John was evident that day in them and perhaps was even more intense than the differences between the other disciples.
If we fast forward one chapter and a few days, we see Jesus talking about his death again. He explains that he will be killed and that he will rise again after three days. The inappropriate response this time is seen as James and John together approach Jesus and give a classic line that most parents have heard at one point or another. They said, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” This is a line children use when they are used to hearing “no” and they want to trick a parent into something they would never otherwise agree to. It doesn’t work, of course, and Jesus wisely directed them to tell him what they wanted.
This was their request: “We want to sit at your right hand and at your left in your glory.” Jesus probably slapped his forehead in frustration as he launched into an explanation of how they had completely missed the point of what he was trying to tell them about the nature of his kingdom and what would happen to him in the days ahead.
I’m thinking this: If Jesus had answered “Yes, you may have those honored places when I am glorified. Who should I put at my right hand and who will be on the left?” the brothers would have dissolved their conniving unity on the spot and gone head to head over the who’d get the best place. Being at the right hand of Jesus would clearly be superior to sitting at the left hand.
James and John are called the sons of Zebadee in the text, though they might also be called the “Sons of Entitlement.” Although their father was a fisherman, which is a form of common labor when it is your career and not hobby, there is some evidence that the family lived quite comfortably. They must have caught a lot of fish. Whether it was their relative affluence or the fact that Jesus had selected them from the crowd, John and James were pretty confident that they deserved the best and that it was theirs for the asking.
Jesus’ response to the brothers was essentially this: Being great is not about being at the top or the right or the left or having more power than someone else or being able to bully someone into submission. Being great is by necessity related to choosing a lower place. Lots of people manage to fight their way to the top while stepping on the people beneath them. Jesus taught that being exceptional is seeing the needs of others as equally important as one’s own and placing oneself in the role of a servant.
This week we got to see a new group of debators discussing whose presidential aspirations are most worthy. Wherever our political affections lie, Jesus’ words are something to consider. He recognized that some rulers “lord it over” their people, and some use their position of supposed greatness as an excuse for tyranny. I don’t think any of us want to be led by someone who abuses power. How do we identify those who wish to serve for the sake of serving and not for self-interest?
Servants don’t get any more honor now than they did when Jesus reprimanded James and John. Most of us can probably grasp the message of those strong words and see the value of a life a service to others, even if it’s more of a concept that a life goal. But let’s face it, given the choice, not many would opt for a life of servitude.
I do have some questions about Jesus’ words that I don’t think are always asked. When does a commendable commitment to servanthood become in invitation to abuse? Jesus speaks of his own life as an example of being a servant, and it’s pretty clear that it led to horrific abuse. Jesus’ death is the ultimate sign of what love could require of us, though that kind of sacrifice is not what any of us aspire to. How do we give ourselves to others in a way that honors and assists them without crossing over a boundary that dishonors our own self? Only we can answer that. But Jesus’ call to serving others is still strong and clear.
Jesus’ final statement in this section of Mark is complicated for those who hold to a progressive view of Jesus’ life and death. He said, “The son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The word “ransom” is code for sacrificial atonement. It’s about payment made to release someone from captivity. In terms of Christian theology, it often refers to the concept of Jesus’ death satisfying God’s need for a blood sacrifice. Atonement is another word that is used to express the same idea. It’s interesting to find that concept in the Gospel of Mark, since it mostly emerges later in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Some Bible scholars would say that the concept of ransom and atonement were added later to Mark’s gospel. Maybe another way to look at it is this: Jesus’ example of serving to the point of death provides a powerful model for us. By following in the way of Jesus through serving others sacrificially, we are freed from true bondage. We are ransomed from greed and corruption.
James and John were probably like a lot of brothers. The fought and they also came together when they needed to. I think of the brothers Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham and the legacy of conflict that continues in their name to this day, to this weekend, in Israel and Palestine. Brothers will fight, but they can also come together when they are persuaded they need each other. We keep believing that is possible and we keep praying and acting for peace.
My oldest brother, the adventurer and photographer, has been in a group home for thirty years due to serious mental illness that emerged in young adulthood. I recently became his guardian. I’m not sure if that makes me my brother’s keeper? When I visit him, as I do periodically, I do things I would otherwise never do. I go to the neighborhood store to buy cigarettes and soda because they are the only pleasures he has left in his life and because his physical condition doesn’t allow him to go to the store by himself. My father had the position of guardian for decades and saw my brother every month to make sure he was OK and that his basic needs were being met. He only gave up that role when driving eight hours round trip at age 91 became too much. That is an example of servanthood that will always remain with me.
Where do you see others serving in ways that amaze and inspire you? I don’t think people will be remembered simply because they are powerful or have gained notoriety through impressive achievements. Those worthy of honor are those who have served others well, who have loved and lifted up those in need. May we join their ranks and follow gratefully in the way of Jesus.