Summary: Jesus presents a stark contrast to the disciples', and our, perception of leadership and status. "You want to be first?" Jesus says, "Then humble yourself. You want to be a great leader. Then become a servant."
Leadership, it seems, is quite the buzzword these days. In just about every field of work and study, focus is often on developing strong leaders. We all know a good leader when we see one; we can all identify the great leaders in human history. And I think each of us can name at least some of the traits of a good leader. In fact, let’s take a moment and identify some of those leadership traits. What is it you admire in a good leader? Perhaps we value honesty and integrity; or dedication; a good leader is open and fair, though perhaps at the same time assertive. A good leader might be creative and have a sense of humor. Like Martin Luther King Jr. or Steve Jobs, a great leader might be valued because of his great vision.
Indeed, there are many traits we revere in a good leader, but we also often lift up the person, don’t we? A good leader is put on a pedestal, either literally or figuratively. We fully expect that a good leader will get a promotion, or at least a raise. And many of us, myself included, are often motivated by such rewards; we work hard because we want to make more money, we strive to be a good leader so that we can get a promotion, we want to be recognized, praised, and rewarded for what we do. The reason? Well, quite simply, it makes us feel good; we’re kind of a selfish race, and we like it when we do good things and people praise us for it. But here’s the thing; selfishness isn’t a trait we celebrate, is it?
So we come to this morning’s text from Mark’s gospel, and the request of James and John. To put it quite plainly, these guys are acting selfishly; fairly typical human behavior, but shameful nonetheless. In fact, the behavior is so shameful that Matthew and Luke try to soften their accounts of this request by having James’ and John’s mother approach Jesus with the question of giving her sons places of honor in the coming kingdom. Here are two men who have given up everything to follow Jesus. They have left their work, their homes, their families and friends—everything—in order to be disciples of Christ. They have been following Jesus around listening as he teaches the crowds, helping as Jesus heals people, and even going off and doing some teaching and healing of their own. Now, they feel, it’s time for their just rewards; it’s time for some payback for all that they’ve sacrificed; it’s time for some recognition for all their hard work; it’s time for a little promotion in the kingdom, and they feel, as we always do, that they should receive whatever they want. So they tell Jesus that.
Did you notice that in the passage this morning? When James and John approach Jesus, the first thing they say to Jesus is, “We want you to grant us whatever we ask.” They thought they could outsmart Jesus, they thought they could get a promise of their reward before actually asking for it. It’s almost like they knew what they were asking wasn’t really very appropriate; particularly for a couple of disciples of this new and surprisingly different prophet named Jesus. What’s funny, though, is that even though they seemed to understand that maybe their request was a little “over-the-top,” they had absolutely no idea just how off-the-mark it was. I mean, I think we all have at least a little inkling of guilt when we are acting out of selfish motives, and I think that’s what James and John were feeling too. But, as Jesus himself said, they had no idea what they were asking. In making this request of Jesus, the brothers were indicating a complete lack of understanding of who Jesus was and what he was about.
To get an idea of just how misguided James and John were, we need only look at the beginning of this morning’s passage. Here, Jesus predicts his passion; his trial and crucifixion. “Look!” he said. “We’re going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the legal experts. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. They will ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him. After three days, he will rise up.” The only thing Jesus doesn’t do as he predicts his looming death and resurrection is say, “I.” And because he doesn’t make that very plan connection that he is the Son of Man about whom he is speaking, the disciples don’t make the connection either. Jesus has described in vivid detail how he will be tried, tortured, and killed before he rises again, but it is not enough for the sons of Zebedee. They have a singular focus, a “one-track-mind,” if you will, and they want to cash in on Jesus’ glory, forgetting that the path to glory goes through the cross.