This is the second time I’ve preached on this text, and I feel that it went pretty similarly to the last time I preached on it. That was during vicar year, so I’ve improved since then (I hope, anyway!) but it was still a challenge.
One thing that came through really clearly in this text was Christ’s selflessness in contrast to the selfishness of each of the disciples. If each of us thinks through our life and our daily routine, I bet we could each come up with a dozen examples easily of the mindset that prompts the disciples to act this way. It’s literally everywhere and there is no cure for it — except for Christ. I aimed to bring that out in the sermon.
Notice, too, how specific and concise Jesus is with His description of His passion: accusations by the chief priests and scribes, yet He is handed over to the Romans; acute descriptions of what He will undergo. It inspires wonder, that Jesus knew it all ahead of time yet chose to go willingly and humbly to His death — for us.
The James mentioned in this text is James son of Zebedee, not James son of Alphaeus (another one of the 12), nor James of Jerusalem, who seems to have been Jesus’ earthly brother, who wrote the epistle of James, and was the bishop or prominent pastor of the church in Jerusalem (e.g. Acts 15.) The Bible can be confusing if you don’t keep the same or similar names straight with the people involved.
Jesus grant you humble submission to His Word, and to one another, in Christian love and charity. May He bless your Lenten devotions. Peace be with you.
“Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (matt 20.17-28 niv)
Brothers and sisters, I have a great announcement to make! I’ve discovered the secret to perfect tranquility and harmony in our church. We can get rid of strife and anger and hard feelings among us. There is a way to abolish all arguing and fighting and backbiting. It will cure all griping and complaining and finger-pointing forever. This way is guaranteed to work, but only if each of us follows through on it. It’s foolproof, but we each need to be on board for it to work. If only one person refuses to go along with it, the whole thing goes down in flames. Want to know what it is? “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” So what do you think? Can we pull it off? Can we get rid of all anger and divisiveness and squabbling forever?
Let me say that nothing would make me happier than if each of us lived up to these words of Jesus fully and completely. But I know it’s not going to happen. Sooner or later – maybe even before you make it to your car to head home today – you’ll hear something that you’ll be tempted to say is the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, and pretty soon you’re saying, “Here’s what I would do…” Or your spouse will do something that just doesn’t make sense to you, and maybe you’ll let him or her know about it, and your tone will be a little sharper than is needed, and you’re off and running. Or you’ve got plenty of good ideas about how things should be done at work or in the home or even at church, but nobody seems interested in hearing your good ideas because they’re too busy trying to tell you how it should be, and it’s a short step from there to arguing about it and butting heads and bad blood that carries on unaddressed for a long time. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” Each of us jealously guards the honor and prestige we think we’re due, and woe to the person who doesn’t show us proper respect. Each of us craves honor, respect, and deference from those around us, and if we feel that we’re being shorted even just a fraction of what we deserve, boy, we let others know about it. Our hurt feelings can kick into overdrive in a second. Each of us has that flash from time to time of, “Who does he think he is? She can’t talk to me that way! You think you’re going to treat me like that? Oh no you don’t!” Then we strike back. We each want to be the one who calls the shots, who says what goes. Each of us has sin living inside of us that believes fully and fervently that I am special, I am different, and therefore I deserve to be treated like it. Teamwork is everybody doing what I say. That’s why all too often the church, the workplace, the home become battlegrounds where we scratch and claw at each other, trying to keep others in their places and out of ours.
This urge to be first isn’t the same as the exercise of authority that God has given us. Some of us have different callings that involve telling others what to do or directing the course of affairs for the good of the group. Here we might think of a Christian parent, a teacher, an administrator who works for the government, or a pastor. It’s worth remembering that these positions don’t have to be inside the church to be service to God. If a Christian teaches in a public school, for example, that’s still service to God. Yet in all these different positions and callings that involve exercising authority over another, that authority is never to be used for our own good alone. That would be taking advantage of those whom God has placed in our care. God never gives authority that isn’t meant to be used for the good of others. That’s the direct opposite of the lust for power and honor that we see in our flesh, and in our gospel for today.
The disciples provide us with another example of that urge to honor ourselves that lives in us. James and John come to Jesus with their mother with a special request. It was probably her idea to ask, but she was asking for what they wanted so they’re okay with it. They want to sit on Jesus’ right and on His left in His kingdom. James and John were part of what is sometimes called Jesus’ inner circle, the small group of disciples that Jesus permitted to see more than the rest. Along with Peter, James and John saw Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter, they saw Him on the Mount of Transfiguration, and many other things the other disciples weren’t privileged to see. That’s part of why they think they can ask for this honor and actually get it. The other disciples hear about James and John’s request, and they are livid. They are righteously irritated with the brothers. “Who do they think they are? They’re no better than we are! In fact, if anybody should have one of those spots, it should be me!” Do you know why the other disciples responded that way? Because they wanted those spots for themselves. The other ten thought they each were special, and that Jesus should honor them that way.
It’s not just the bickering and squabbling among people that’s the problem with this attitude. Ultimately we want to treat God that way too. A heart that refuses to yield to its neighbor will also refuse to accept God’s righteousness. If you say to those around you, “Back off, I’m in charge here,” you’d very well end up saying to God, “I don’t need You or Your Word. I have no need of Your Son’s holiness for me and I’m quite capable of washing myself and making myself pure, thank you very much. You keep Your righteousness!” We can be determined to stand before God on our own merits, instead of taking the righteousness He provides through His Son.
Jesus reminds us that that’s the world’s way. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” The world thinks like our flesh: exercise all the authority you have. Use what little power you’ve got to the utmost, or somebody else will get ahead of you. Maybe you’ve seen this in other people. One of the few perks workers in minimum wage jobs have is when the manager above their manager shows up. Then the overbearing boss who’s always terrorizing them suddenly becomes the one who’s nervous and who has to jump to please the boss. The workers on the bottom are safe because they’re too insignificant to be noticed, but the manager in the middle has to sweat. It’s the world’s way, but it’s not God’s way.
God’s way seems backwards to the world and it insults our flesh. God’s way is to become first by making yourself last, to become great by becoming insignificant. That’s what Jesus tells us to do. Make yourself everyone else’s slave if you want to be great. Put everybody else ahead of yourself. Act like you are totally unimportant and everybody else matters more than you. This is what Jesus was talking about when He said, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Deny yourself – don’t let your flesh have the honor and respect it craves, because you don’t need it anyway. Jesus has given you something better, and now He tells you to take up your cross in imitation of Him.
Before we can take up our crosses, Jesus had to take up His. His greatest act of service was in what He let other people do to Him. “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will turn Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day He will be raised to life.” “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus put everybody else first. He could have demanded star treatment. He was God walking on earth; He deserved to be treated like it! Yet He did not demand honor from anyone. He owned everything, He ruled over everything, yet He made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. He allowed His enemies to treat Him shamefully. He let them torture Him, beat Him, subject Him to abuses so vile they’re unthinkable, and finally He allowed them to kill Him because it’s only by His wounds that we are healed. His death brings us to God and makes us acceptable again. He was a sacrifice without spot or blemish that we could never be. His greatest act of service came when He allowed sinful men to shed His blood so that your pride and anger would be blotted out forever.
When Jesus has gathered us together, the lost sheep of God’s Israel, why would we ever want to tear each other down? We are all one. He has gathered us into one body, His body, the Church. We’re all on the same level before God now. We’re all His saints, His holy ones, and nothing divides us or comes between us anymore. Jesus has removed the dividing wall of hostility between us and God, and in so doing He has brought all of us together.
So let’s live like we are one! Willingly put yourself beneath others. Make a conscious decision to let someone else have the final say. In humility consider others better than yourselves. Don’t be so insistent on your own views and ideas. Don’t be so zealous for your own pride and honor, but instead learn what pleases the Lord and best serves your neighbor. Each of us should look not to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Exercise whatever authority God has given you, but don’t use it for yourself – use it to benefit others. And if someone wants to get offended at you for no good reason, why multiply the wrong by getting angry or defensive back at them? Why not rather be wronged? Why not let someone mistreat you? After all, Jesus did for you, and it’s not possible that you’ll humble yourself more than He did. Put others first, and you’ll find greatness God’s way. Amen.