Lent: Letting go of the chase
Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. "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."
"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. 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."
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 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.
Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- 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."
Sometimes the disciples make me laugh. There are just so many occasions in the gospel stories where Jesus finds them doing and saying things that reveal that they really don’t get it. One of the ways they seem to repeatedly miss the point is when they keep arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Or like in this story, where the two brothers, James and John, try to get their Mum to arrange for them to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom.
Of course the kingdom they’re interested in is not some sort of mystical or heavenly kingdom; they’re still at the point in the journey where they believe Jesus is about to lead a revolution, defeat the Romans, and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel in which Christ will be the king and will rule on the throne of David. So they’re asking for positions of power. They want positions of influence in this coming kingdom. They want to be important, to have status, to be successful, to be powerful, to have influence. They’re driven by their ego, and they’re still trying to find a way to fit the Jesus mission into their ‘feed the ego’ campaign.
But Jesus re-orients the conversation. He says: this is the way all the other kingdoms work, this is the way everyone else is talking about what matters; about power, status and prestige, about gaining influence and letting that feed your ego so that you become someone who loves being more important than others. But I’m offering you a different way of being in the world. I’m offering you a path downward. I’m offering you an invitation into the upside-down kingdom. I’m telling you that the path to greatness in my kingdom, is the path of descent. It is to give up the demands of your ego, it is to give up the allure of status, power and self-importance, and it is instead to become someone who will follow the Jesus way.
And so he tells them what kind of leader he is, what kind of King he is, what kind of kingdom he is interested in, and its one in which he becomes the servant of others. In the Jesus way, the greatest is the one who serves and gives his life, not the one who sits on a throne with supreme status and power, and exercises dominance over others.
This is what the shape of the Easter story symbolises for us. But it takes us downward not upward.
The disciples come across as a bit thick in this story, but I know I’m not so different. I know that when I’m given positions that have any kind of power and influence to them, my ego gets a bit of fuel. And those thoughts start to grow that tell me I’m doing pretty well, to look at the attention I’m being paid, to listen to how people are complimenting me, to revel in my improving status… I can’t image how I would have behaved if I was in the inner circle of a promised Messiah who I believed was going to establish an everlasting kingdom, but I’m pretty sure I would have walked around with a little swagger when we rode into town.
The disciples are tempted, as so many of us are, to take whatever system is in front of us, be it religious, political, or economic, and figure out how to use it to our advantage. To feed the drive of the ego. We are so often at the centre of our own story, jostling for position. Maybe it’s not as overt as these two brothers, but a lot of the ways we structure our society is designed to help us feed the ego, to acquire more status and more influence.
The challenge of Jesus is that the pathway to life and to the kingdom of God, is found in the giving up of our chasing of status, power, influence and success in favour of seeing others liberated.
This Lent, I have been challenged by how easily I sanitise my faith and turn it into a domesticated spirituality. I take all the wildness out of it, all of the risk, all of the revolution. I so easily turn it into a way of feeling a bit better about my life, but I think there’s more potency in the Jesus story than this. There’s a radical letting go as the pathway to the life on the other side of death.
So this is where Christianity as a philosophy is not enough. It somehow must grip me and transform me. This Lent I’m reminded that ideas are not enough. I need to be disrupted and changed, and that change means allowing some things to die. And I find this to be a big part of the radical nature of early Christianity. This image of death and new life, death and new life, death and new life; this is the invitation.
It is mystical kind of language. It is not just the language of philosophy, it’s the language of experience. This is something we are to enter into.
Prayer of St Francis of Assisi
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”