He said to them, “What is it you want Me to do for you?” And they said to Him, “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” (Mark 10.36-37)
Are You New?
My favorite moment in the entire “Roseanne” series came when DJ, the financially strapped homemaker’s son asked his mother for some extra spending money. With classic sarcasm, she replied, “Are you new?” The laugh comes out of everything Roseanne’s answer telegraphed. Before he asked, the boy knew it was a long shot, at best—so much so that it sounded as if he had no idea how things worked in his family.
The scene instantly came to mind when looking at Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 10.35-45). James and John step forward to ask Jesus for a most unusual favor. They want Him to reserve places beside Him in God’s kingdom. From our vantage, it’s such a ridiculous, self-serving request—an idea so antithetical to discipleship—that we almost see Jesus roll His eyes as He fires back, “Are you new?” At every opportunity in Mark’s gospel, Jesus preaches self-imposed lowliness and service to others. There is simply no room in the kingdom for ambition and seeking status. Yet here are two of His closest disciples trying to secure positions of honor in advance of the events that will bring Christ into His glory. And we need to be very clear about the error of their intentions. Three times Jesus has explained He’ll be arrested, executed, and brought back to life. Getting to glory will be a gruesome, humiliating task and anyone who expects to arrive there with Jesus will have to go through the ordeal alongside Him. That’s why Jesus constantly emphasizes the importance of lowering oneself, of focusing on intentional service that embraces crushing demands. The right request would ask Jesus’s help in summoning courage to sacrifice one’s life and strength to endure unbearable pain. James and John, clinging to the fantasy of triumphal glory, discount what it requires. All they care about is landing the best seats in house after the worst of it is over. If Jesus decided to play it for laughs, perhaps giving the so-called “sons of thunder”—as He somewhat sarcastically calls James and John—a foretaste of the meanness that awaits, He would dismiss them with ever-so-dry incredulity. Are you new?
But the trials and presumptive defeat that will bring about Christ’s glory are no laughing matter. Jesus sternly tells the Thunder Boys, “You don’t know what you are asking.” He turns their request into a question for them: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (v38) Now comes the passage’s real shocker. James and John immediately reply, “We are able.” (v39) The question changes from “Are you new?” to “Are you nuts?” Strangely, Jesus goes a different route. He seems to find their confidence reassuring and reinforces the fact that they will most definitely join Him in the fear, suffering, and death that must be conquered to bring about God’s kingdom. Yet, even then, He withholds any guarantee of greatness. “To sit at My right hand or My left is not Mine to grant,” He tells them in verse 40. “But it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And let’s look closely at this: Jesus refuses to pre-judge James and John either way, good or bad. Their place in the kingdom depends on them. If they honor its principles and endure its hardships, they will achieve the prominence they seek. What they want isn’t Christ's to give. It’s up to them.
Obviously this outbreak of status craving infuriates the rest of the disciples. Who do James and John think they are? Instead of trying to explain the sincerity of their motives—essentially apologizing for the Thunder Boys—Jesus returns to the same lesson He’s been teaching all of His followers: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (v43) The New Order He’s come to institute is all about giving, not getting. He makes Himself the prime example, explaining, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (v45) Jesus is upholding the principle of selfless exchange: our sacrifice for others’ redemption, our loss for others’ restoration. It is a radically new idea that, to this day, is nearly impossible to comprehend. It is an ideal that carries tremendous personal costs that we must assess and accept if we are ever to gain access to the kingdom of God.
Ready to Serve
It’s been said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sunday’s Gospel tells us the path to glory is a rocky one that can only be navigated by intentional goodness. There is no express lane, no shortcut that gets us into God’s kingdom ahead of the rest—no means of arriving early to snag the best seats in the house. Nearly every step we make presents us with decisions that ask more of us than we’d ordinarily give. Every day confronts us with choices that put our comforts and desires in direct opposition to those of others. And those choices would be easy if they merely boiled down to being nice and agreeable—to acting polite.
But it’s not that simple. To be servants of all, we must seek what is right for those we serve. That means we are often called to humble ourselves in pursuit of justice and demonstrate compassion with boldness that reflects God’s righteousness. We must be willing to endure the hardships and criticism that accompany swimming against popular trends and tides—not for the sake of self-aggrandizement, but because it is our calling. As it turns out, we are new. We are new creatures in Christ. Old thinking about success and prominence doesn’t work for us. Old ideas about getting ahead don’t sway us. And whatever glory we may receive for our commitment to Christ is irrelevant. Like our Savior, we are ready to serve, not to be served. We give our lives in exchange for the lives of others. If we ask more of our faith than that, we have no idea what we’re asking for.
The path to glory is a service road—and a rocky one, at that.