Summary: This sermon is about pride, ambition and the desire to great.
There is the story about a painter who was painting a picture of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell saw the painting he was not pleased because he did not think the painting was genuine. He therefore told the court painter to take it back and paint him warts and all. What Cromwell wanted was an accurate representation of who he was. (William Barclay. The Daily Study Bible Serires: The Gospel Of Mark. Volume 1. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, pp. 253-254). How many of us would be comfortable having an artist paint our portrait in such a way that it would reflect our flaws?
What we see in the portrait that is painted for us by the words of scripture in Mark 10:35-45 is a picture of who both James and John really were. Their request comes across as being conceited, arrogant and insensitive. Jesus had just told them where it was that they were headed and why. In the words of John Calvin, “they had a different object in view from the one that they ought to have”. What did Calvin mean by that statement? To answer that question, consider how a telescope is made. Look through it the way that it is designed, it magnifies things. When it comes to discipleship, we have to look through the telescope backwards. John the Baptizer put it this way: Jesus must become greater and we must become less John (John 3:30).
For James and John to ask for this special request from Jesus shows their presumptuousness. Prior to this conversation, Jesus had told them for a third time about His suffering and death while they were on their way to Jerusalem. For them to make this request is terribly insensitive. They seemed to possess the same kind of ambition as the Pharisees who always wanted the best seats in the synagogue (Luke 11:43). How often does are ambition resemble theirs? They had an ambitious request that Jesus addressed with a shocking reply.
THE AMBITIOUS REQUEST
They wanted a spot that would guarantee their rank. They had asked Jesus to say yes to a request before Jesus even heard what that request was. These two wanted to guarantee their place in rank. They were a part of the inner circle. Perhaps, they were thinking that this would be helpful in putting them ahead of the game. The other disciples seemed to get mad at both John and James. Why? Perhaps, they got mad because they were thinking that they, too, might get a special place. If that is the case, then they got mad at both James and John because they were moving in on their territory and seemingly threatening their chances for the seats on the right and the left. Or, perhaps, they got mad at James and John for having the audacity to even mention their request because it was selfish. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Nothing is humbler than ambition when it is about to climb”.
It is unfortunate that our society seems to have taught us that there is no place for inferiority. In sporting events there must be a winner as well as a loser. The loser usually walks away with a certain amount of shame while the winner goes on to play the fame game along with all of the glory that goes along with it. Some act is if there are no trophies for second place or second best. The seat of honor that both James and John were lobbying for was a trophy--- a first place . The seat on the right was place of honor. The seat on the left was also a place of honor, but not as highly regarded as the right.
There is something wrong with having ambition for selfish reasons (Philipians 2:3). It reminds us that the crown always precedes the cross. It also reminds us that those who follow after Christ’s example must also carry their crosses because we must lose our lives in Christ through denial of self and selfish desires versus gaining favor with the world (Mark 8:35-36 paraphrased).
It never ceases to be amazing just how ambition might come about in getting to enjoy something as simple as a candy bar. I remember when I was little, me and my sister Becky could not wait to devour the last Snickers candy bar. To make things fair, my father told me to cut the candy bar while remembering that my sister would get the largest half. That decree made me be selfish in reverse. I did not want her to get any more than more so I cut the candy as close to being exactly in half as I could.
THE SHOCKING REPLY
Jesus told them that they did not know what they were asking for. Jesus told them that what they were asking was not for him to decide. It was God’s decision. After all, Jesus said that He was the vine and that God was the vine dresser as he likened His disciples to being branches (John 15:1-17 ). We have to remember although Jesus left the glory of heaven “…who humbled Himself even to the point of death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).