Don Pratt: From the Bottom Up

Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. This is the third time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus has told them what is going to happen to him when they get to Jerusalem. The first time he told them (8:32-33) Peter pulled him aside and told him he had it all wrong, that those things were not going to happen, that Peter wouldn’t let them. The second time he told them (9:32-34) they immediately started to argue among themselves as to which of them was the greatest.

And now, in the verses preceding the ones we just read, Jesus had just told them that when they got to Jerusalem, he would be handed over to the chief priests and teachers of the law and they would condemn him, mock him, beat him, and kill him. Then three days later he will rise. And the disciples responded by asking Jesus for a favor. Lord have mercy.

So, the question they ask the man who just told them he was about to be beaten and killed is not really a question. It is a statement.

Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask (v. 35).

As Eugene Peterson put it, “There is something about this story that seems to me to be very American” [Eugene H. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, p. 246]. As Christians we seem to have moved away from following Jesus to trying to get something from Jesus. People are told that if they’ll just give their life to Jesus, then Jesus will do all of these wonderful things for them. It is a deal no sane person could pass up!

In turn, a lot of people see God and church as a place to go and get what they need, what they want. It becomes less about following Jesus and more about a God up in the sky who gives us “whatever we ask.”

I have known many people through the years who left the faith because God didn’t do what they wanted. God didn’t prosper them like they asked. God didn’t heal a loved one like they asked. And they have been taught that God is supposed to do all of those things for us. They gave up before they ever really understood the true Gospel.

The American Prosperity Gospel promises a God who is at your beck and call, who will answer all your prayers, give you whatever you want. And when we learn that God is God and not our errand boy, a lot of people no longer believe. But what we have often been taught to believe is not the God of the Scriptures. Like James and John, we have been deaf to what Jesus has been telling us all along.

So, Jesus wisely didn’t give them a blanket “yes.” He never does. So he asked them what it was they wanted.

Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory (v. 37).

We have always understood that they were asking for positions of honor. They didn’t listen to what Jesus had told them. They still thought that when they got to Jerusalem, Jesus would establish his kingdom and they wanted places of honor when it happened.

But here is an interesting thought. What if they were not asking for a new position of power? What if they were asking to hang on to positions they already had?

You see, James and John already had positions of power and influence. According to the Gospel of John (13:23), John was seated at Jesus’ right at the last supper. Was James seated at his left? Was this their normal seats when they ate together, the seats of honor? James and John and Peter were the three privileged disciples. For whatever reason, they were the ones Jesus chose to go with him on special occasions. They saw things the other disciples never saw, like the transfiguration or the time Jesus raised a girl from the dead. They were given special privileges the other disciples were not given. Maybe they were not asking for power and privilege. Maybe they were asking to keep the power and privilege they already had. They were afraid of losing their privilege. Maybe they were afraid of others taking their place when Jesus’ kingdom was established. They had worked hard. They had endured three years on the road to get where they were. They were chosen by Jesus. Their privilege was a gift, but they felt like they had earned it. It seems that is often how it is, and they didn’t want to give it up.

We’re dealing with this today. The United States has always been a majority white nation of European descent. It is projected that by the year 2044 that will no longer be the case. There will be more minority populations than the white population []. I believe that, at least in part, the rise of white supremacy and racism that we have witnessed lately comes from people who are worried about losing privilege, worried about losing power. As the nation becomes more brown than white, some white people are asking Jesus to let them keep their seats of power.

As women assume more roles of leadership and responsibility, some men feel privilege and power slipping away, and many men are praying to Jesus to let them keep their privilege, their power. It is prayer motivated by fear. It is a prayer I believe Jesus will answer much like he answered James’ and John’s request.

Jesus’ answer was, “You don’t know what you are asking.” Then “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (v. 38).

Both of these images, the cup and the baptism, are images of suffering. The cup is used as an image of God’s wrath and suffering throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Baptism often suggests repentance, a washing away of sins through suffering.

But, as people often do, James and John heard what they wanted. They understood “cup” as a cup of joy and “baptism” as a symbol of new life. So, they said, “We can.” Jesus answered, “You will.” And they did. James died a violent death as a martyr and John spent his last years in Exile. They prayed for privilege and the only thing Jesus promised them was suffering.

When the other ten found out what had happened, they were angry. I’ll bet they were saying things like, “How could they even think of such a thing at a time like this?” “Those two are always only looking out for themselves. We are offended they would ask such a thing.” Of course, on the inside they were kicking themselves for not thinking of it first. Jesus was about to usher in a new kingdom, a new world order, and James and John had called “shotgun” before they did.

At this point, Jesus sat them down and explained to them, and to us, that the new world order, his kingdom was not like the old kingdom, the old-world order. “Maneuvering for places of honor has no place in the [new] kingdom” [R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, p.349].

In this world order it is all about power. It is all about privilege. In this world order people with power and privilege flaunt it over those who don’t have it. Those in power make the rules, and the tax breaks, for themselves. You have to claw your way to the top and once there you have to hold onto your power and privilege with everything you have. If you don’t, someone will take it away from you and they will do things their way and their way may not include you.

It seems that James and John thought the new world order, the kingdom of God, worked on the same principle as the old-world order. Many still think that today. They thought that in God’s kingdom it would still be about power and privilege. The difference would be that they would be the ones in power. They would be the ones with privilege, not the Romans. And many today still think that the Kingdom of God is just the current world power structure, but with us in charge.

Jesus said, “Not so!” In the kingdom of God, in the new world order, if you want to become great, you must be a servant. It’s not those who sit in places of power, but those who serve who are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

In the old world order everything trickles down from the top. Those on the bottom get what is left over. In the new world order, everything changes from the bottom. Change and transformation work their way up. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, it’s a trickle up effect [Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p.41].

And as usual, Jesus led by example. He explained, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).

As it turns out, Jesus did not answer James’ and John’s prayer as they had wanted him to. When Jesus came into his kingdom, it was not James and John on either side of him. It was two thieves. Jesus lived his entire life as a servant. The night before he died, he got down on his hands and knees, and he washed his disciples’ feet. As he hung, dying on a cross, he served forgiveness to one dying next to him.

It still doesn’t seem to make much sense to us. But this is how we change the world. We change the world by the way we love and serve those around us. It is not about power and privilege. We can sacrifice our souls for power and privilege and we will end up with nothing. Or we can be a servant to those around us, keep our souls, and maybe even see some other souls join us in the journey. We change the world from the bottom up, not the top down. Love demonstrated through service is the ultimate trickle-up effect.

We will turn the world upside down when we turn James’ and John’s question upside down. We will turn the world upside down when we learn to ask, “Teacher, we want to do for you whatever you ask of us” [Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p.45].

Would you pray with me?

Dear God, thank you for loving us. We are so used to a world where being on top, wielding the power and privilege are the way we get things done, that we often fail to understand that the real power to change human lives and to change our world comes not from privilege and power, but from love and service. Help us to understand that your kingdom is not like the empires of this world, only with us in charge. But your kingdom is one in which those who lead are those who serve. The greatest are those who love and serve the most. Help us follow Jesus in the path of love and service. Amen.