Save Me a Seat

Mark 10:35-45

From The Message:

James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”

“What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”

“Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.”

Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?”

“Sure,” they said. “Why not?”

Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.”

When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”

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What is this place?

A place where we find our greatness in servanthood.  Thanks be to God

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“Save me a seat.”  Has anyone said this?  Where were you? A movie theatre? A classroom? A restaurant? A conference?  That moment with the tray in the cafeteria.  Who am I going to sit next to?  What if I have to sit next to someone I don’t like?  Or have you been to a birthday party where everyone wants to sit by the birthday girl/boy?  That’s where the presents get opened.  There is glory by proximity.  Plus cake.

James and John want the first pick at the cake.  They are asking Jesus for a special spot – the seats on his right and left.  I picture something like a head-table at a wedding and James and John are the.  (Who’s marrying whom?  The analogy breaks down.)  But their motivation is a little darker than wanting to be Jesus’ best man or maid of honor.  It’s not necessarily obvious from translation but this is an explicitly political ask.  They are making an assumption about a) the kind of Messiah that Jesus is going to be and b) that they are entitled to a position in the new administration.

Jesus must have shaken his head in disbelief.  Just finished a potent about his death at the hands of the powers.  He has now three times in this section of Mark talked about his death, invited his disciples into the paradox of finding greatness through eschewing it in favor of embracing small-ness.

Ched Myers calls it a discipleship catechism.[i] In this instance Jesus says immediately before the passage we heard,

“‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the [Human One] will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’”

The very next sentence is, “Rabbi, we want you to do something for us.”

[Sigh]

Mark bookends this section of the gospel with stories of blindness.  By doing so he draws a parallel to the seeming total blindness and deafness of the disciples in understanding Jesus’ gospel of freedom from the kind of power-grabbing control-seeking fear-based worldly way of being.

We all too familiar with what it sounds like when people bully, fear-monger, and out-yell and their way into power.  I did not watch the recent GOP debate but I’ve heard enough in recent weeks and months to feel like Donald Trump might be an emblematic embodiment of the kind of empire worshiping power seeking that Jesus wants to free us from.  The debates are even set up like the picture James and John have in mind – with the most powerful one in the center and those ranked second and third to either side and so on down the line.  In that setting, that place, they’re each in their ranked seat according to who is the greatest.  And the Donald is the greatest.

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What is this place?

A place where we find our greatness in servanthood.  Thanks be to God.

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A servant doesn’t have a seat.  It does not occur to one with the attitude of servanthood to feel entitled to a seat, the way politicians in this fray seem to feel.  The way The Zebedee men seem to feel. But it’s not just It wasn’t just James and John.  It might seem like the other disciples were more tuned it – after all they jump on James and John for asking Jesus this question.  But really they’re just mad that the sons of Zebedee – or the Zebedee boyz as I like to call them – got in there first and called shot gun.  Doh!  They would have asked first if they’d thought of it.  But of course, those foolish, hapless, disciples are foils for our own fallings, failings and misunderstandings.  They are us.  We too are lured into placing our faith in systems that rank people, reward power with more power, rank by popularity.

Canada is also in a time of preparation for federal elections.  Mennonite Central Committee Canada has a post on their Facebook page right now that I find provocative:

“As an Anabaptist-Mennonite, I believe that during election time, I have a responsibility to bring my faith conviction to the public sphere.  I am responsible to use my power and privilege – and my vote! – in service to others. And I am called to take into the polling booth, my commitments about care and compassion for the poor and vulnerable; reconciliation with Indigenous people; the pursuit of justice and peace; care for God’s creation; integrity, honesty and respectfulness in public life.”

Whew – they use all the right words: Anabaptist (yes!), compassion for the poor (yes!), reconciliation with the indigenous (yes! love that in our dismantling of the Doctrine of Discovery), care for creation (yes!). Even service! Yes, yes and yes!  But hold on a second.  Bringing our faith to the public sphere is not the same as putting our faith in the public sphere.  It is so easy to think that the one in the right seat will be the one to save us.

I heard a lot of commentary on the radio about how the Democrats ‘won’ the debate game, but as polite as they were to each other, Bernie and Hillary and the rest are still vying for a position for tremendous power and neither of them will save us.  I’m not telling you not to vote.  Our greatness is found in putting on the mind of Christ, who frees us from dependence on the seat-seekers.

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What is this place?

A place where we find our greatness in servanthood.  Thanks be to God.

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When Jesus hears his disciples arguing about seat-saving he calls them all together: This is not how it is in the Kin-dom of God!  He reminds them (again) ‘You’re not like that.  You know this.  You are servants to each other and I came to be a servant too.  I came to release you from all that!’

A classmate from seminary had this to say about Canadian election process:

As we come to the end of an excessively long federal election campaign in Canada, I am pondering many questions… What will be left with when the rhetoric subsides? How will our society come together after this callous & divisive crusade for power? Has the pompous posturing made us a better people? Surely the exercise of democracy should accomplish much, much more than merely placing politicians in power. I am so tired of self-interested dog-fights. I long for honest conversations about our hopes and our dreams for our children and their children and all children of God’s great earth.

I am not sure, as my friend Harold is, that the exercise of democracy should accomplish much – at least not as sure as I am that we do better to place our trust and faith in Christ, in the Kingdom of love, of hope, of forgiveness, of servanthood.  Release from the crusade for power.  Release from rhetoric.  Release from fear-based, power-hungry ‘Save me a seat.’ Thanks be to God,

We are used to hearing this passage with the ending that Sheldon and Janis read from the NRSV: “For the Son of Man [the Human One] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This is most often interpreted as Jesus is talking about substitutionary atonement, that is making himself a sacrifice to expiate sins.  That could be the case, but I do not believe it is.  It is about literally and possibly even physically offering freedom.  That word, translated ransom (lutron in Greek), is more accurately interpreted by the Message, which I read off the top: ” to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”  It means a payment for someone who is enslaved in return for their freedom.

Jesus is spending his life and heading towards his death in Jerusalem in an act of freeing his disciples (and us) from the dependence on the kind of power the world has to offer.  He spends his life and walks toward his death freeing people from captivity to blindness, illness and death, from dependence on wealth, literally from captivity.  In his death he physically frees at least one person, when Barabbas is released.  And on his right and his left?  Those places are held by criminals who are crucified along with him.

He is paradoxically inviting his disciples into taking on the embodiment of a slave, a servant with no status, and at the same time releasing them from beings slaves to an imperial system that only wants all its citizen to compete for seats, want everyone yelling “save me a seat!” because there aren’t enough to go around.  Jesus is offering release! In the Kin-dom nobody needs to save seats.  All the seats are the best seats and we are servants to one another.

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What is this place?

A place where we find greatness in servanthood.  Thanks be to God.


[i] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 236ff.

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