Summary: Monologue of the elderly apostle John, as he looks back at today's story and considers lessons learned on servant leadership.
My name is John. Yes, that John, one of Jesus’ twelve, in fact, the one he loved the most. At least that’s the way I always felt. I’m in my late ’80s now. I know that’s nothing for many of you, but for my time, that’s an extremely long life. All of my battle buddies, my wingmen, my fellow disciples are now in heaven. I’m the only one left. It’s a little lonely here on the island of Patmos, but I know God has me alive for a reason.
So, do I remember the conversation you just read? Oh, yes. I remember it like it was yesterday. Jesus was determined to set foot toward Jerusalem. He had been talking about his pending suffering, death, and resurrection; yet, all we could focus on was Jerusalem. My brother James and I thought, “This is it! It’s finally happening! The Messiah is going to take his rightful place on the throne! Finally, the Romans are going to get their just due. Messiah Jesus is going to kick them out of our country and begin this Kingdom reign he’s been talking about for three years.” We knew we were part of his inner circle, his top leaders, Peter, James, and me. So it only seemed natural to ask if James and I could have the places of honor on his right and left, you know, brothers and all. Peter would take care of himself. My fellow disciple, Matthew, remembers that our mom was involved (Matthew 20:20-21). I’d like to blame it on her, but James and I were more than willing to take those top spots of leadership. Jesus would need some strong cabinet heads, so why not us?
As he so often did with people, Jesus took our question and posed a question of his own. He asked us, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (v. 38). We answered with a flippant, “Yes we can,” not really thinking about what he was asking. The “cup” in our Bible, the Old Testament, spoke to God’s wrath, as in “God will pour out his wrath on the nations who disobey him” [see Psalm 75:7-8 and Jeremiah 25:15-16]. We had never even conceived that God might pour out his wrath on his one and only son, on behalf of all sinful mankind. The “baptism” spoke of death and burial, as one is lowered down into the water. We remembered how Jesus had identified with all those sinners around John the Baptist by being lowered along with them into the waters of the Jordan. Later, after seeing our Lord on the cross and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, we could better appreciate his words. But at the time, all we could get out was an enthusiastic, “Yes we can.”
And Jesus replied (vv. 39b-40), “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” Looking back on those words, we can now fully appreciate the significance of them. James and I were just two young fishermen who wanted to make it big in this new kingdom Jesus kept talking about. We had no idea we might share in Jesus’ cup of suffering and death. Not too long after Jesus ascended to heaven, King Herod murdered my brother James with the sword (Acts 12:2). I would pay a different kind of price, allowed to live to a ripe old age, yet exiled to the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9).
While Jesus acknowledged our part in suffering and death, he left it to the Father’s choice who sat at his right and left. Jesus often did this: submitting completely to the Father’s will. Looking back, it took a while to sink in, but over time, each of us disciples have been able to submit ourselves to that same will, no matter what the cost.
Well, back to the story. When the other ten heard what we were up to, asking for these places of honor on either side of our Lord, they were indignant! It’s the same feeling Jesus had felt earlier, when we kept the children away from him. He was indignant with us. And now the other disciples were indignant with him! It’s pretty funny, as I think about it now, so many years later: they weren’t angry at us for craving power right after Jesus talked about his upcoming suffering. They were angry because they hadn’t thought of it first! We had pre-empted their own power grab!
As he often did with us, Jesus used the whole thing as a teachable moment. He pulled all twelve of us around him, and said (v. 42), “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” Yes, we knew all about that, having grown up in a country under subjugation to the ruthless Romans. The Herods were the worst. Their absolute power made them absolutely danger for us to be around. Just ask my brother. It reminds me of a quote more common to your time: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton). This was the way of our world, and apparently, all too often of your own. Maybe you’ve known leaders who were just after power, and cared little about your welfare.