Brief synopsis of the readings: In the 53rd chapter of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord crushed “his servant with suffering.” If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs and have a long life. “By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself. Mark’s Gospel describes a scene where the brothers James and John spoke to Jesus. They asked that when Jesus comes into his glory they could sit next to him. Jesus told them that they had no idea what they were asking, that they needed to be willing to drink from his cup and be baptized with his baptism. But he also said this promotion was not his to give but instead “they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.” Overhearing this the other 10 grew angry with James and John. Jesus then gathered all of them and told them that they must not be like the pagans who seek authority. “For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve.”
Years ago, when I spent a fair amount of time meeting with couples who were preparing for marriage, I felt a certain amount of amusement. Now, after 20 years of marriage, I’m even more amused.
When I spoke with them about the vows they promised to each other they agreed with enthusiasm: “For better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” etc. My amusement stemmed from the recognition that they had absolutely no idea what they promised. They looked on their vows in terms of better, richer, and in health. While they may have had an intellectual understanding of the downside of marriage they often didn’t think it would happen to them.
One of my former coworkers, Carol, is a social worker. She told me that when someone is evaluating a possible spouse, don’t ask if that is the person you want to watch a sunset in Hawaii with. Instead ask if this person would be willing to hold the bucket when you’re vomiting. She was right when she told me that only someone who was willing to hold the bucket would be worthy of watching the sunset with you.
I think she speaks to what we read today. I’ve spoken about this before, but ambition is baked into our DNA. Ambition isn’t bad in and of itself, but like many things it can be used or abused. Ambition is used well when it advances the Kingdom of God and used poorly when we attempt to advance our own glory.
Anyone giving management advice to James and John would tell them to do exactly what they did. Everyone who works for an organization hears that he should tell his boss that he wants to climb the ladder and will do whatever it takes. When offices are planned out everyone looks to see who has the corner office and who is close to the manager’s office. When James and John asked to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand “in your glory” they are lobbying for an ambitious place.
When I read this I’m reminded of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. According to the legend Arthur grew weary of knights who jockeyed to have seats close to his place at the head of the table. To combat this he insisted on a round table. This seating arrangement did not diminish is role as the leader but it sent a message to his knights that the rest of them were equal to each other and that their place didn’t depend on how much they could curry favor with Arthur.
Jesus takes this a step further. Clearly James and John looked on their request in the hopes that Jesus would reward them for their good work or at least reward them for their ambition. But Jesus looked on this with an entirely different view. While James and John looked ahead to Easter Sunday, Jesus recognized that the road to Easter traveled through Good Friday. By asking to sit on his right and left “in his glory” told Jesus that they desired no part in the road that led to this glory.
Years ago I heard a priest talk about the phrase “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” and said this was Jesus’ mission statement (or to use a modern version this was his “elevator message”). The desire to be close to Jesus does not bathe us in glory but instead calls us to a hard road.
Let me circle back to those who prepare for marriage. It is, perhaps, a good thing that couples in their 20s don’t fully understand what their vows will mean in their 80s. To quote Jesus: “You do not know what you are asking.”
To ask to be at Jesus’ right and left, to promise to partner with someone for life, demands a life that will go in directions that we cannot imagine. Sometimes the direction will exceed our hopes, and that’s wonderful, but sometimes they go in a different direction.
If we look at the lives of Jesus’ disciples, many of them didn’t end well. They faced discrimination, exile, and even execution. But let’s face it: our discipleship likely will not face those extremes.
But I do think that the marriage vows we take can give us an insight into these readings. I’m blessed to see people at the end of their lives and I regularly see phenomenal expressions of fidelity and courage.
I have seen wives who have lived for years with husbands with dementia. I have seen husbands who didn’t change the diapers of their children but now step up and provide intimate care for their wives. I have seen powerful husbands who have walked away from golf games to care for their wives. I’ve seen shy and demure wives stand up to doctors to demand the care that their husbands need.
Without fail when I’ve asked them where they found the courage to step up like this they’ve hearkened back to their wedding vows. Interestingly they don’t talk about “promises” but instead about “vows.” When I press them on this they tell me that they make promises to other people, but they make vows to God. When they tell me about the difficulties of caregiving they nearly always tell me that God gives them the strength to keep their vows.
When I hear this I think about today’s Gospel and think that Jesus would be pleased to know that they took his message seriously.