29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 15, 2021
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
“You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours”
If I use an example that involves politics, can you all promise to not get too distracted? It’s not even a controversial example, it’s just about how government and politics work. Promise? Ok.
(1) So after a person is elected president, and as the exchange of power begins to proceed, the media attention quickly turns to what? Who the president is going to select to be part of his cabinet. And what’s the story usually? Who these people are, what their qualifications or lack of qualifications are, how this particular part of government will look under their leadership. But every now and then, the questions focus on how the person being appointed is on the receiving end of a deal they made with the new president: “You endorse me, I’ll nominate you,” “You do me a favor, I’ll do you one,” “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” And yeah, the nominees are people the president knows, and has worked with, people he trusts. And that’s natural, you want people are around you that you know and trust. And this isn’t just for the president! We see this almost universally. The president, the governor, the mayor, the football coach, the principal—leaders make long-lasting decisions, tell you a lot about what their leadership will look like and what they want it to look like based on who they surround themselves with. “Personnel is policy,” is another way people often say this.
(2) What this also means is that the leader—who the leader is, how the leader chooses to act, his character, what kind of people the leader chooses, the character he expects from the people he chooses, so many other things like that—all of these are huge! The leader determines and directs the culture of the people and the place he’s leading.
James and John: Vying for Cabinet Positions
(1) So put yourself in this mindset as we read the Gospel. This is exactly what the disciples are getting at. James and John decide that they are going to ask for it all. They walk up to Jesus and just ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35). And then they go for it! “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (Mark 10:37). In other words, “We want the highest place next to you!”
At this point, the disciples have gone all-in on the belief that Jesus is the Messiah they had been waiting for. The Messiah, the Christ, the promised King of Israel! As Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem, saying he is going to accomplish his mission—well these boys are still thinking in very worldly political terms. “He’s going up to Jerusalem? He’s going to accomplish his mission? That means he’s going to be gloriously enthroned as King of Israel! And we’re his twelve closes followers? Let’s ask for the best spots!” Does this make sense? James and John are looking forward to being in this new king’s cabinet. They’re jockeying for vice president and chief of staff, offensive and defensive coordinator, vice principal and lead teacher.
(2) But it’s at this point that the leader, that Jesus, points out his own character, the kind of culture he’s trying to form in the “government” of his new kingdom, and what he expects from his leaders. And this is where everything starts to not make sense to the disciples. This is what Jesus is asking them about and describing for them. And he’s trying to see if they are really sure they know what they’re asking for, and if they are fit for the job.
Spoiler alert: the people at Jesus’ left and his right when he is in his glory? Those are the two thieves crucified next to Jesus. The cross is the hour of Jesus’ glorification. The cup that Jesus will drink, the baptism with which he will be baptized? That’s his suffering and death; his silent, obedient, faithful acceptance of the cross. The people who qualify for the job that James and John want? The positions of first and greatest? The greatest will be the servant. The first will be the slave of all. Jesus is shattering every preconceived idea, every human category of greatness and power!
Do you see this? Jesus is very willing to let James and John have those positions…but he knows that they don’t know what they’re asking for, they’re not ready for it. There is a certain “culture” (if you will) that Jesus is trying to embody and build, and they aren’t quite there. Power works very different in the Messiah’s kingdom, in the Kingdom of God. It’s often going to look like you’re losing, like you’re failing, like you’ve been defeated! “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mark 10:31).
The Temptation To Seek Power
It’s easy to feel very much like James and John: wanting positions of power so that we can work for Jesus and make the world better, save people, do good. And it’s frustrating, disheartening, scary to see the world going in certain directions. We want to take control, take charge and win!
James and John wanted the same! They lived in a world just as discouraging, maybe more so! Inundated with secular ideology, pagan practices, moral debauchery. Every day they were faced with a government (Rome) that shared almost none of the values they held; a government which has no room for “cultural diversity” or “tolerance.” The early Christians were faced with secular leaders that were arrogant, rude, power-hungry, deceptive, unfair. Slavery was still around. Racism was rampant. Intolerance and bigotry and prejudice were quasi-virtues of the culture. Abortion was just fine. The poor were neglected. Immigrants were…well, not great. Taxes were unfair, to say the least. Deadly diseases and pandemics without a cure were just a normal thing. This is what they woke up to every morning! This is what they had to look forward to every day. Sound familiar?
In the face of all of this, what were they supposed to do? What are we supposed to do? Because Jesus keeps talking about how he’s going to suffer and die, become the servant and slave of all. How does that help? What does that mean for us?
As his disciples, it means to embody this as well. St. Paul will talk later, especially in his letter to the Philippians, about how we should “put on the mind of the Messiah,” see things as Jesus sees them and follow his lead. Paul says things like, “Yes, you live in a broken and backwards world. Yes, it is frustrating. And yes, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that things are going to get better. But, look at it with the mind of Christ, of the Messiah! Put on the mind of the Messiah! Follow his example!” (Phil 2:5). Why? Because, backwards as it seems—that is how he was victorious.
Time and again, Jesus embodied a life of faithfulness. Willing to undergo intense suffering, rejection, humiliation—to become the least and the slave of all. Are we willing to embody that too? Or are we only willing to continue to struggle with the worldly power games?
How is a Christian is supposed to live in the midst of a world that is so openly hostile and contrary to them. Their values must be embodied in their own way of living. They must bear witness to the truth not through ideological debates, not through being closed-in on the echo chambers of their own opinion. That’s not how hearts and minds are changed, no. “Only the witness of the truth [lived out and embodied] can reach man’s heart.”
The Witness of a Faithful Disciple: The Means of the Transformation of Culture
I’ve told you about my dad before. He’s a doc’ up in Wichita. And he worked a lot with the residents, the doctors in training. And there was this one resident he had who was pretty outspoken about her pro-choice and pro-contraception views. But her curiosity was piqued by this doctor, my dad, who lived life very differently from the other doctors she trained with. Here was this successful doctor who talked about how much he loved his wife (while the other doctors talked about “the ol’ ball and chain”). She noticed how this doctor loved his kids—all six and one-on-the-way of them—and was always talking about them, and how he couldn’t wait to go back home (while the other doctors talked about how they were going to go to play golf, or go to the gym, or find any excuse to stay out). My parents caught a lot of flack for living their life like this. They endured suffering for this. They were looked down on. But one day she got to meet my mom when they were both at the same function, and was changed by their conversation about her family. And I talked to this doc, and she said that it was through them—my parents living their life as witnesses, faithful disciples—that her opinions on abortion and contraception began to change. She said that it was my mom that brought her to Christ.
So again, go back to the Gospel. Here is a leader, Jesus, determining the culture he is going to cultivate, embodying the values he wants to see in his team; choosing and calling forth people that will embody this as well, “personnel is policy.” And he wants people that can live the life of the gospel—these are the leaders he wants.
The gospel—the gospel embodied in a new manner of living—has power. It opens the hearts of people. It cuts through the noise. It breaks open the echo chambers. The witness, a living witness of the newness and change the gospel brings; a faithful disciple, a servant; someone who embodies the gospel so that people can see and touch and realize that the gospel makes them more alive, freer, happier, makes them more themselves—this is how the power of the gospel is wielded. It’s upside-down: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” But this is the way.