I have heard it suggested that if everyone spent a little time working as a server at least once then the world would be a better place. The idea behind this is that servers have to put up with the worst in human behavior, and if people had to endure that they would be more inclined to be kind to others. Every person who has ever worked with a waiter or a waitress could spend an entire evening sharing horror story after horror story that they experienced. The server horror story that I read once that sticks with me the most because it is so ludicrous was about an older woman dining alone at a very high end restaurant. Once this woman was seated she put out twenty $1 bills on the table. Every time something annoyed her: the room could be too loud, the server did not smile enough, or she did not like a song being played then she would remove a dollar. By the end there was $1 left on the table, and the bill was pushing $300. The worst of these stories all have the same theme in common, which is the customers essentially forget to treat the servers like fellow human beings. It is a server’s job to serve, but they are not servants. It seems some people forget this, and that is where a lot of the worst horror stories come from. There is story after story where customers are very demanding (beyond the point of just wanting something right), say rude or crass things that most people would never think of saying to a stranger, and just down right rude behavior. These stories always end that after jumping through the hoops to meet demands, putting up with the rude words, and cleaning up their messes the server inevitably ends up getting stiffed. The people who suggest that everyone should be required to spend some time working as a server, might be on to something. If everyone had to spend time purposely trying to meet the whims and needs of others it really could help make all of us a bit more patient, a little less demanding, and a lot more humble. As people who seek to follow the example of Jesus, it could be a helpful experience for us, and we might be better equipped to live out the example Jesus gave when he said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”
As we continue during the church season of Lent, we continue to focus on the disciples. Today we focus on James and John, these two sons of Zebedee were some of the first disciples that Jesus called. I think that we can really identify with them. This morning scripture, shows that James and John are a lot like us in their actions and motivations. The fact that they eventually lived selfless life following the example of Jesus Christ, shows that we can do the same as well.
While I think we get the gist of James and John’s request, to sit at the left and right of Jesus when he comes into his glory, a little cultural context helps give a fuller understanding. At a formal banquet in the first century, there was a very strict seating order. Often at the head or center of the table would sit the person of honor. If this was party thrown in honor of someone, they would sit there. Otherwise the seat would go to the most important person in the room. This might be the host, or depending on the event it could be a powerful official or ruler of some sort. From this person, everyone else would fall in line. The second most important or prestigious person would then sit to this person’s right, and the third most important or prestigious person would then be the left. It would go back and forth like this from right to left filling the table. Everyone knew their place and they knew where they were in relation to everyone else. It was kind of a bold move, but James and John swung for the fences. They believed that Jesus was the messiah, and they believed that he would usher in a new kingdom, so they wanted to secure their position early. By asking to sit at the left and right of Jesus they were essentially asking to be the second and third most important, respected, and powerful people in God’s eternal kingdom right after Jesus.
Upon hearing that, our reaction is probably similar to that of the other ten disciples. The scripture records. “they became indignant.” There was probably a bunch of “just who do you think you are?” and “someone’s a little too big for their britches.” At the same time though, we cannot really fault James and John. After all they were only doing what some of us probably would have tried to do, and what we are all taught to do. Human civilization, and our culture in general celebrates winners. A lot of people bemoan that everyone gets a trophy today, but despite that little oddity our culture by and large our culture sends messages that winning is everything and reaching the top is the most important thing we can do. We seem to be hardwired for this as well. When someone commits to something it is truly remarkable what they can do. For example, Pat Acton is the best matchstick builder in the world, which is apparently a thing. He builds amazing scale models with a high level of detail only using match sticks. It is amazing, but at the same time what drives someone to be the best matchstick builder in the world? It is as if we all have a deep seated desire to be the best at something. We want to be the MVP, we want to be #1, we want to be the king of the hill, and we want to be the person at the top of heap. James and John were just being ambitious. If the other ten disciples were being honest, they wanted the same thing. They were not indignant because of the audacity of James and John’s request. They were indignant because they got beat to the punch!
Seeking to be the first of greatest is the way of the world, and we know it. In the late 19th century and 20th century, people even tried to use science to justify this. They called it social Darwinism, and the idea is that it is natural for people to seek being over others, and so those who have achieved it, fully deserved their social position because it is a form of survival of the fittest. This type of thinking was used to justify racism, the oppression of the poor, and even helped justify horrible atrocities like the holocaust. A constant pressure to be viewed as winners or number one might be the way of the world, but it is not the way of Jesus. Jesus flips the script. He turns everything topsy turvy. Jesus points out that the way of the world during his time was the same way it is today. People carve power and authority, and then they “lord that power over others.” Jesus though offers a different way. The world of Jesus day and the world of our day defines success by reaching the top, by having the most, and by being regarded as the best. Jesus though redefines success. Jesus tells us what success looks like in the kingdom of God. Success is not based on how much you get, it is based on how much you give away; it is not based on what you earn, it is based on how you put others first. Jesus is clear, we should not seek or measure success on the same terms the world uses. He said, “Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
It can be easy for us to take the point of what Jesus is saying, boil it down and overly simplify it. We can take what Jesus saying and convert it into the moral lesson that “we need to be considerate of others”, or “we need to take time to think about people other than ourselves.” While those are morality lessons we should take to heart, oversimplifying what Jesus says in this morning’s scripture to that reduces the true power of his message. Jesus did not say to be considerate, he said “whoever wants to be first must be a slave to all.” This statement is more than just a verbal illustration. Remember, Jesus lived in an era where slavery was a practice and social custom. Slavery in the Roman world, while not racially motivated or as dehumanizing as the American experience, was still not exactly a situation anyone wanted to be in. In the first century slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder. Everyone had a seat above of them at the table. James and John requested the best seats of honor but Jesus told them, they should be seeking the seats with the least honor.
We also have to consider the life of a slave. A slave’s lot in life was to serve, a slave’s job was literally to meet the needs of others. Though using the word job here is not quite fear, because it is not like slaves had a choice. Slaves were forced to serve others, even if they did not want to. Serving others is what defined a slave’s entire existence. In other words, Jesus was telling his disciples that what they should seek is a life that is fully dedicating to serving the needs of others. Putting others first is not something that they did when they felt like it or when it fit in their schedule, putting others first, serving others, and being a slave of all should be the very nature of a disciple. This is the example that Jesus gave us. If anyone could have achieved power, authority, and success by the measure of the world it was Jesus. Being the very nature of God, he could have accomplished whatever he wanted, but Jesus was obedient to the point of death to serve others. He put the needs of the world before his own on the cross for he “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom of many.”
I have to wonder how James and John felt when they heard Jesus say this. They might have been asking themselves, “what exactly did we sign up for?” After all, being a “slave to all” is not exactly a perk that plays well in a sells pitch. Despite that though, the two brothers took Jesus example to heart and they were faithful disciples who put others first. John is often attributed to be the author of the gospel of John as well as the three small espistles that bear his name. Christian tradition also attributes the book of Revelation to him, which is stated he wrote while in exile on Patamos. James was obedient to following Christ to the ultimate end, and Christian tradition holds that he was the first of the twelve disciples to be martyred for his faith. Being a slave to all, does not sound glamorous, but as we consider the full message of the grace and discipleship found in the gospels, we find that there is a key difference between what Jesus is advocating and being a true slave.
A true slave life is defined by serving others, but they have no choice in that matter. Their choice is serve or die. As disciples our lives should also be defined by serving others, but we do that of our own volition. We can choose to serve others because Christ served us out of great love, and we have the opportunity to show that kind of love to others. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are free of our sin and we are free of the ways of the world. We are free from the pressures to have the most, to be the best, to win no matter what the cost. We are free to choose serving ourselves out of selfish interest or we are free to follow the way of Christ and serve others. Like James and John we will struggle with making the choice that our we know in our hearts of hearts is the right one. We will be tempted by the prestige, fame, and power offered by following the ways of the world. Even though we will struggle with staying on the narrow path of faith, hallelujah that we are free to struggle, and that we are not struggling to be free.
The example that James and John set for us is that even though we can sometimes get distracted from the path of discipleship, we have the choice to follow the ways of the world or the ways of Christ. In his song Give me your eyes, Brandon Heath sings, “Give me your eyes so I can see everything I keep missing. Give me your love for you humanity.” May that be our prayer as well. We are surrounded daily by people that God loves a great deal, people that we tend to miss. May we take the time to notice the people around us, and may we choose to exercise our freedom, love them, and be a slave to all by seeking to serve them. In doing so, may we be the kind of disciples that follow the example of Jesus.