35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then 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; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
This is the Gospel of the Lord
Praise to You, O Christ
My brother is three years younger than me. So naturally, when we were little he always wanted to play with my friends and me. And we always let him, in fact, we gave him options - we would say to him:
“Tom, we’re playing house: You can be the servant or you can be the dog.”
Usually, Tom would choose servant and would gladly fetch us things and do things for us… which was really fun until one of our parents would ask “Why is Tom cleaning your room?” and then the game was over.
Whatever injustices my parents saw in this situation as the oldest I saw no problem issue. With age comes privilege and if I was going to use my privilege to get my room cleaned, I didn’t see what the issue was.
Neither did James and John when they realized they had an “in” with Jesus and decided to to try and get ahead for once.
For generations, people like James and John (the people of Israel) had dwelt in the lower ranks of society. You might remember these two were the sons of Zebedee, a fisherman, which was fine… if you like fishing. But it was far from a privileged life. The Romans were in charge. Zebedee and men like him bowed their heads when the soldiers went by and paid their taxes (even if they suspected the collectors were overcharging them.) And there was little they could do to change the system in place.
So all the members of the Israelite community dreamed of the day when a Savior would come who would free them from Roman rule and reestablish them as a powerful nation. Then they would be the ones giving the orders instead of receiving, having their revenge.
James and John wanted nothing more than to rise up the ranks and be invited into seats of power on either side of Jesus - the Messiah.
That’s one way to read this story: that James and John are selfish - power-hungry brothers just looking out for themselves. But let’s not be too quick to judge.
Just a few verses before today’s passage begins, in verse 32, we are told that “those who followed Jesus were afraid.” We’re not told why — but how different this story feels if we picture James and John as vulnerable and fearful instead of selfish and scheming.
Not too long ago one of our Parish Nurses, Erin Brown, introduced me to a book that helps me to read this particular Bible story from a different angle. The book is titled “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing”. The premise of the book is this: so often we approach people with “problems” attitude problems, social problems, mental health problems by asking the question: “What’s wrong with you?” (or - also likely - by not approaching them at all but turning to a friend or colleague and asking, “What’s wrong with him?” or “What’s her problem?”) And of course an approach like that only widens the gap between us and our fellow human being.
The authors of this book suggest a different approach, which is to ask instead: “What happened to you?” This question, and the research behind it, points to the reality that most of us in our lives have experienced some level of trauma that manifests itself in ways we don’t even realize: fears, anxieties, assumptions about other people. When we consider maybe something happened (or is happening) in our neighbor’s lives that is causing their behavior, it gives us greater capacity for compassion.
So let’s think about “power-hungry” James and John here. We are told - immediately before this passage - that those who followed Jesus were afraid. Why would they be afraid? “What happened to them?”
What happened to them was that they are the descendants of an oppressed and exiled people, so immediately we know some generational trauma has shaped the way they have been taught to view the world. They are living in a community persecuted for their religious beliefs, cultural practices, and ethnicity. They are dependent upon an economic system that is not fair. As fishermen, their livelihood is precarious and at times they must choose whether to eat the fish they have caught or sell it and go hungry in order to buy other necessities.
War, violence, poverty, division, oppression - there are a lot of things that have happened and are still happening to these two brothers.
Considered in this light, maybe it’s not shocking that given the opportunity, James and John will do what they can to try and secure a steady future for themselves. One where things aren’t so chaotic and beyond their control. One where they might sit as close as possible to this man who seems to truly care for their wellbeing.
Awhile back I shared a story about the famous “Stanford Marshmallow” test performed by researcher Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the late 1960s. In the experiment, children were given a choice: They could have one marshmallow right now, or if they waited awhile, they could have two. The whole project was a test of delayed gratification, and the assumption was that if the children could demonstrate a capacity for patience and self-control, these positive attributes would serve them well as they continued to face real-life situations.
Years later some issues were identified in this study — especially as similar experiments were performed on children who didn’t happen to live in one of the most educated and affluent college communities in the country. For example, think about how different the results of a similar experiment looked when it was performed on a group of low-income Head Start preschoolers in Chicago later. Who came from homes where basic necessities like food, and heat, and electricity were not always guaranteed.
“You can have one marshmallow now or you can wait and have two later.” the adult says. Survival instincts kick in and the child jumps at the chance for that treat — because what has happened in this child’s life has taught them that if they wait, there is no guarantee those two marshmallows will actually appear.
So do we pass judgment on the children who want the treat and want it now? Are they selfish, impulsive, and greedy like James and John? Or have they been brought up in a system that has neglected to provide for their basic needs?
In 2016 an updated version of the Marshmallow Study was done by Melissa Sturge-Apple, at the University of Rochester. (This time it was M&Ms, not marshmallows.) When gathering participants, she made sure half of the participants came from families where the parents were both college-educated and wealthy, while the other half were both non-college-educated and living in poverty. And turns out these factors alone: education and socioeconomic status severely impacted how the child reacted.
Those raised in what we might imagine a typical middle class life to look like: weekly trips to the grocery store, occasional treats and restaurant outings, almost all decided to delay their reward for some extra M&Ms. But for children living in poverty the opposite was true and Dr. Sturge-Apple was quick to point out that:
"When resources are low and scarce, the rational decision is to take the immediate benefit and to discount the future gain… When children are faced with… not knowing when the next meal is — they may be better off if they take what is in front of them… The tendency of poorer children to pounce on immediate rewards might not be the result of impulsiveness but rather of careful consideration.”
Who are we to judge the child grabs for the treat?
And who are we to judge the disciple who sees an opportunity for power and asks for it?
I think the call for Christians in this story has a lot less to do with individual judgement and a lot more to do with considering how we either contribute to or help dismantle a system that creates such stark differences. Haves and have nots. The powerful and the oppressed.
When Jesus responds to James and John, in a way he’s saying: “Do you really want to be a part of this brokenness? Their rulers use domination and fear to get what they want. Do you really want to be like that? Do you want to be what happened to them?”
Jesus then offers them almost something of a promise.
“Follow me, and you won’t need that kind of power.”
Follow me and you won’t need to take from others to feel better about yourself.
I will give you everything you need — to the point where you will finally, once and for all, feel safe and be set free from this terrible system. You won’t care which seat you have at the table. In fact, when you discover the truth of what it means to follow me none of this will matter anymore.
When we embrace the love of Christ it’s easier to the Romans for who they truly are. And, we become empowered to disengage from systems of oppression that seek to make the weak weaker and the powerful more powerful.
Freed from the clenches of greed and jealousy, we are able to move forward with gladness and joy. To the point where we are happy to play the servant (or the dog). To take up the cross, bear another’s burdens, clean our sister’s room, give away the markers of status and wealth that we discover we really just don’t need.
One final update to our Marshmallow experiment saga…
In 2020 the Association for Psychological Science published findings from yet another version of this study in delayed gratification. This time it was a cookie, not a marshmallow or M&Ms. And in this version of the experiment the children were put into two groups: one group was the “solo condition” - they were on their own and same thing, they could eat one cookie now or wait and have two later. However in the other group, the “cooperative” or “interdependence condition” they were partnered up and told that they would receive the second cookie only if both they and their partner could wait.
Across the board, significantly more children held off on eating the first cookie in the interdependence condition compared with the solo condition. The researchers reported that their findings reflect “the strong motivational consequences that simply being in a cooperative context has for children from early on in development… from a young age develop a sense of obligation towards their social partners.” Another way of saying this: when we can clearly see how our actions affect our neighbors, for better or worse, it leads us to act in ways we otherwise might not.
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” Jesus said. “and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Like James and John, may we allow ourselves to be led by Jesus to see and notice our interconnectedness in this world. How our assumptions are not always correct, how our actions affect others (for better or worse), and how we might use the power and influence each of us possesses to dismantle broken systems so that we might love and serve one another in the same way Jesus Christ came to love and serve all of humankind.
Thanks be to God.