Whoever wants to be great must be a servant
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” He replied, “What do you wish me to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” Jesus said to them. “The cup that I drink, you will drink and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give, but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the 10 heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45).
Let’s walk through this passage together verse by verse because Jesus is saying several things here that are very important for our daily lives.
Here are two close followers of Jesus. They have walked with him for some time. Yet, their request is a selfish one. They want an assurance of position and power when Jesus enters his kingdom. They are obviously still thinking in a human, self-centered manner and they are bold to so directly ask for themselves. Put yourself in the place of James and John: What would you have requested and how would you have done it? What does your answer say about your priorities?
Notice next that Jesus doesn’t respond to their request, but asks them another question. I am sure he looked at them intently because he was always trying to help them penetrate the superficial. But somehow, they didn’t see. Why do I surmise this? Because Jesus could read their thoughts. He knew what they were going to ask. I am sure he was praying that they could receive the powerful truths he was about to convey. (Whenever you read a Gospel passage where Jesus is asking people questions, put yourself in their place and answer the question as honestly as you can before you go on to Jesus’ answer. It will tell you a great deal about yourself.)
If Jesus asked you the question: “What do you wish me to do for you?” what would you say? Would it be a selfish request? Would it be something to meet a personal need or of someone you love? There is a place for bringing needs, personal or otherwise, to the Lord. He loves to have us come to him with our needs. but is that the first thing you bring to the Lord? What he wants most is that you share eternal life with him! So, the first things we ought to be asking for are those things that can best help us to grow in a personal relationship with Jesus – overcoming sin, growing in virtue, so that we more and more look and act like him. His Holy Spirit longs to help us to hunger and thirst for the most important things first. So, stop here for a bit and think: If Jesus asked me today what he could do for me, how would I respond?
Now, we look at the disciples’ request: Oh my! Do you hear yourself? They probably reasoned they were sacrificing much to follow him so there must be some reward coming. It probably didn’t help that their own mother was “egging” them on. (Matthew 20:20-28) Nevertheless, their question shows they really don’t yet understand who Jesus is and what he is asking of his followers. They are up front about their request but their thinking is earthbound. What about yours? Are all your goals for this life only? How are you preparing for the life you will live forever?
Jesus’ answer to their question – “You do not know what you are asking” – shows how far they yet have to go in the conversion of their minds and hearts. Notice, Jesus doesn’t just ignore their request or treat them as dumb for having asked. He teaches them, but they are slow to learn.
His next question reveals how far they – and we – have to go. Can you drink the cup? In other words, can you fully share in my life and drink to the bottom the suffering and ridicule and mockery and hatred you will encounter? Can you drink the cup by fully laying down your life?
Notice that, very glibly, they say, “We can.” How quick sometimes we are to promise God or others great deeds!
Jesus tells the disciples, “You will drink my cup.” He knows that with all their frailty and self-centeredness, their hearts do desire to love him and be with him. He knows they will follow him to the end and will sacrifice all eventually. God can work with good desires – as long as we clearly see our weaknesses and rely on him, not self, for the wisdom and strength to carry out what we promise.
Note, too, that the other disciples were indignant: How could James and John make such a request? Probably, one or two wondered that, but I wonder if their indignation didn’t stem from a secret desire to ask the same. James and John had beat them to it. Think about that!
But, Jesus also makes clear, “I cannot promise what you ask.” All of that is the decision of my Father.
One more huge lesson remains in this passage: If you want to be my disciple, you need to serve humbly. You need to learn how to put the needs of others before your own. You need to be willing to give whatever service is needed – not just how you want to serve. Even, and perhaps especially, in positions of authority, we need to see that role as one of service – real service, however it is needed.
We need to become more like our Master, who did not come to be served but to serve.
James and John both learned their lessons very well. Can we?