Our language is full of expressions that reward individual initiative, and see that as a model of leadership. The early bird catches the worm. Take the bull by the horns. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. God helps those who help themselves. (That last one isn’t in the Bible, by the way. It’s from Benjamin Franklin.) Our culture values the go-getter, the entrepreneur, and the self-starter. These are the sorts of people you want it charge, right? But our Christian faith asks us to consider a different set of values, and a different kind of leadership.
You may remember—at least I hope you remember—last week’s Gospel, with the Rich Young Man, who found it difficult to follow Jesus, because he had many possessions, and couldn’t let them go. This week’s Gospel presents a different obstacle to discipleship: the desire for power and authority. Like the Rich Young Man last week, who ran right up to Jesus to find out how to get his share of God’s Kingdom, James and John approach Jesus to ask a little favor. Remember, along with Peter, these two were on the inside track with Jesus. Often when something important was going to happen, Jesus would take along Peter, James, and John. They were clearly his favorites. So, they probably felt like they had a unique opportunity to position themselves for whatever kind of revolution was in the offing. So they ask for the front-row seats, on the right and left. You may remember this story from Luke’s Gospel, which puts the question in the mouth of their mother, kind of letting them off the hook.
This scene of the banquet of God’s Kingdom reminds me of another banquet this past week: the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York, which raises funds for Catholic charities. Power and authority were very much in evidence, with Cardinal Dolan in the center, and President Obama and Mitt Romney on his right and his left. Although it got virtually no coverage in the secular media, I think the most important speech of the evening was Cardinal Dolan’s. After the good-natured jibes and self-deprecating humor from the candidates, the cardinal reminded them both not to forget the marginalized and powerless: the unemployed, the uninsured, unwanted, unwed, unborn, the undocumented, unhoused, unhealthy, unfed, and under educated. It was a great moment; reminding the two candidates of their ultimate responsibility as leaders. It was a great moment; reminding the two candidates of their ultimate responsibility as leaders.
In the Gospel, James and John fundamentally misunderstand both what they’re asking for, and what it’s going to cost them. The very fact that they’re seeking power means that they don’t understand what Jesus has been trying to teach them. They are apparently expecting that God’s reign, when it comes, is going to be like every other empire, but with themselves in the driver’s seat.
Unfortunately, that’s what most people expect. Whenever we’re in the disadvantaged position, instead of imagining a world that is significantly re-structured to eliminate the injustice we’ve experienced, we simply want to be in charge, and to mistreat someone else. History is full of examples of this: When the pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution in England, the first thing they did was prohibit any religious practice different from their own. Think of how the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Once we’re in charge, we tend to have a very short memory for what persecution feels like.
Jesus challenges his disciples to see the Reign of God in a different way. The last will be first, and the first will be last. The one who is the ruler of all is the one who is the servant of all. All our expectations of power and authority will be overturned when God’s justice is established.
James and John do, indeed, have the inside track. But it doesn’t lead to those nice chairs on the right and the left. Their inside track leads to the cross. They’ll get to drink of the same cup that Jesus drinks. For the people of ancient Israel, a full cup was a symbol of abundance and blessing. That this particular cup would be filled with suffering would be another overturning of their expectations. But when God’s reign restructures the world, those who suffer will find fulfillment and joy.
Don’t be alarmed if this leaves you feeling somewhat uneasy. But don’t worry. Every one of us has ample opportunity to serve. We have plenty of chances to lead by serving, to put aside our egos and our natural desire for power and authority, and instead to seek humble service. And we will all have our encounters with the cross. But through all of that, we will be moving toward the reign of God, if we can keep focused on establishing justice and peace for the least of our brothers and sisters, instead of worrying about sitting in the seats of power.