Mark Chapter 10 verses 35 – 45
Where the least are the Greatest
There is a beautiful story about the British author Graham Greene. Greene once waited two and a half years for a 15-minute appointment with the Roman Catholic Mystic Padre Pio, who resided in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be “a living Saint” and bore on his body the “stigmata” or the wounds of Christ.
On the day Greene was due to meet with the revered mystic, Greene first attended a Mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the Mass. However, when the Mass was over, instead of keeping this much awaited appointment, Greene left the church, headed to the airport and flew directly back to London.
When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited two and a half years for, Greene said, “I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.”
That man, of course, is Jesus. He wants to make something magnificent out of our lives by servant leadership.
Look at the transformation of James and John into disciples in servant leadership-- Jesus asked James and John, “Are you willing to give your all, as I am giving my all, to see my kingdom established?” To their credit, they answered, “We are able.”
Servant leadership is sacrificial involving vicarious atonement; that one person can make amends or bear the sin of another so as to remove the guilt of the second, which is what our First Reading teaches from Isaiah, where the word servant refers to the “Suffering Servant” and our Gospel from Mark, where we hear that God purchased his people from slavery in sin by the price of Christ’s own life.
True greatness, true leadership, is about giving ourselves in selfless service to others. And this is never done without cost. The true spiritual leader is concerned infinitely more with the service one can render God and others than with the benefits and pleasures he or she can extract from life. The servant leader aims to put more into life than he or she takes out of it.
Our gospel reading today reveals an encounter between Jesus and His disciples. These men have now walked with the Lord for some three years. During that time He had continually modelled humility and service to others, but even these men struggled with pride and the desire to obtain a place of prominence. Jesus will address the issue of pride and reveal what is expected of those who are committed to serving Him. Surely we all can relate to this passage in some way or another.
There's something profoundly refreshing about just how bold James and John are in our reading today; it borders on the absurd—Jesus flat-out tells them that they have no clue what they're talking about, and it doesn't even faze them; they simply proclaim their faith and faithfulness all the more boldly.
They don't spend their time sitting around in a meeting room, crafting mission statements and ten-year plans; they don't get bogged down in meetings, carefully weighing a balanced budget, taking great pains to practice fiscal responsibility and good stewardship models. They don't take time discerning how this works into their schedule, or wonder if its good self-care. They don't really think ahead, or stop to consider the implications of what they're saying and doing—they just do it. They know what they want, so they walk up to Jesus, and ask for it. It's a bold move; I can respect that. Granted, as Jesus notes immediately, they really don't know what they're saying.
Or maybe that's not quite true; they don't seem to have the whole thing worked out, but they've got a good idea. They're not entirely sure what to make of Jesus, but we can't really fault them for that.
They're not certain what's going on with Jesus, but they do know this much: they desire, above all else, to be close to him, to follow him at any cost. To be right in the middle of everything, wherever Jesus goes—even unto death. They know that there is something about this Jesus that is different.
Perhaps it might have done them some good to spend time in the meeting room, pausing to think before asking Jesus for permission to bask in his reflected glory, sitting at his right hand and his left. Being less brash, taking a step back to consider what some of the consequences might be, could have caused less drama between the disciples, but then again, that just wouldn't be the Sons of Zebedee.
"Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?" Jesus challenges, "Or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" If they were more like Moses, they would have declared themselves unfit for such a task. Were they more like Sarah or Abraham, they might have laughed, but James and John, just look at each other and say "Of course we can." Bold. Bolder still is Jesus' response; he assures them that they will keep their word. They will bite off way more than they can chew
They're on the cusp of something big, and they've signed up to be front and centre. Jesus has just foretold his death for the third time, and they want to be right there with him, sharing his cup and his baptism. James and John don't know what this entails, but we do. These are not easy or pleasant tasks; the Cup from which Jesus will drink ends with the Son of God hanging lifeless upon a cross; his baptism leads to a shroud cast over him, as he is laid in a tomb. It hardly seems like the sort of Glory you go out of your way to sit beside, yet these are the very things which bring life. The constant sound of death transformed into new life, flowing into our midst and out into the world; the baptism Jesus bore, drowning us to sin in a flood of Grace, and daily raising to new life in Christ. Or look, there—a simple table sparsely decorated, yet it is routinely set with a feast worthy of the greatest banquet halls, where we are given to drink a cup that overflows with life, the blood of Christ poured out for the life of the world.
These are simple things, too plain for the grandeur of God—and that is exactly what we experience in them. Jesus takes these things and breathes life into them, recasting honour as humility; greatness as service.
Saint Francis followed in the steps of James and John —he wanted the light of God shining in the darkness of his life. He gave up his claim on worldly riches for a life of bold humility, and his story is filled with examples of generosity and service; of charity and fidelity.
His life was such an inspiration that people flocked to Assisi, eager to live simply. The richness of this communal life of prayer and service led to a rapidly growing community and the founding of the Franciscan Order and just as James and John's yearning to be ever closer to Jesus caused dissent among the Twelve, the rapid growth of the order caused its own problems. Francis founded the order, but he was far from the only friar, and many that came after him did not always share his views. His leadership was eventually rejected; cast aside. Forced to yield to younger friars that appeared more interested in power than in service to Christ, Francis withdrew to Mount la Verna, frustrated.
Fasting on the mountain, alone, he sobbed a prayer of heartbreak. "How, O Lord, can you love such people, when they do you so much to harm?" he begged to know. With the boldness of the Sons of Zebedee, he demanded that Christ show him just how he managed to love humanity so selflessly; so tenderly. Jesus answered the prayer of Saint Francis; for the rest of his days, he would bear the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, the scars left by the long road to the cross. Francis asked Jesus how he loved humanity, and Jesus shared with him the marks of his death—the marks that bring life to the world.
Of course the other ten are going to get indignant at the brazen demand of James and John; to them, it seems arrogant and greedy. But they seem to have a better idea of what was going on than they get credit for. Jesus has been talking in riddles for long enough that they're starting to figure it out. This is how they respond to Jesus' prediction of his own death; with the desire to follow him, closely, intimately, regardless of the consequences. To share in the glory of Jesus; to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves.
I’m sure there have been times in all our lives when there has been sibling rivalry. I know my sister and I were constantly battling over something. She used to make me sit behind the sofa while my mother was out shopping, just to show me who she thought was the greatest.
The prophet Isaiah paints a magnificent portrait of bold humility. It's a familiar image; a lamb, silently bearing the transgressions of humanity, a single life, ransoming, freeing the multitudes from the bondage of sin and death, ushering in peace and life. The servant of God faces the tomb, even though there was no violence in his actions, nor deceit in his words. It's the same humble service Jesus lives out, transforming the cup from which he drinks, and the baptism with which he is baptized into treasures that give life—not death. He knows that he will die, "giving his life as a ransom for many," and it is through this most humble act of service that humanity receives gifts of life ever flowing from the font and the table.
The road which the Lord sets before us is not easy. It requires us to give up our selfish ambition, and to walk the path of service where the least are the greatest. Yet it is a route which leads to a crown of glory for all who follow Jesus.