Mark 10:32-45
March 17, 2002
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church
Mark 10:32-45

In Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I, the king of Siam exercises total and unwavering control over all of his subjects. One day, an English woman named Anna arrives in Siam at the king’s request, brought there to teach his many, many children. Little does the king know, however, just how much Anna will end up teaching him. Little by little, she whittles away at this powerful and seemingly impregnable man, and little by little, his warmth and compassion appear.

One scene in particular struck me as I watched the musical the last few nights at the high school. A young woman named Tuptim had tried to run away from Siam, only to be caught hiding on a ship. As the king’s men brought her into the palace for a thorough whipping, Anna interceded on her behalf and asked the king to let her go. When he initially refused, Anna went nose to nose with him and questioned his unbending need to flog her. “This girl hurt your vanity,” Anna argued. “She didn’t hurt your heart.” In Mark 10:32-45, Jesus tries rather hard to stomp on our vanity as well.

We discussed last week Jesus’ encounter with the rich man, also recounted here in Mark 10. Jesus, Mark tells us, loved the man, and he didn’t want to see anything prevent this potential disciple from following him. So, recognizing the seductive and addictive qualities of wealth, Jesus lovingly but unashamedly instructed the man to sell all that he had and to give the proceeds to the poor. “Imitate God,” Jesus in essence challenged the man, “and give and give and give some more.” Now, here in Mark 10:32-45, we find Jesus conversing with his disciples. During the course of this conversation, our Lord confronts a second and no doubt equally dangerous human craving–the lust for power and position.

On this occasion, Jesus and his band of followers are once again “on the road”–they are making their way toward Jerusalem. Suddenly, Jesus calls his disciples aside and recounts for the third time what awaits him once they arrive there:
See, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man 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.
Immediately after Jesus made such a terrifying and unexpected pronouncement the first time, Peter responded, “Get behind me, Satan (8:33)!” Soon after the second prediction, John inappropriately attempted to limit Jesus’ ministerial influence to the small group of disciples of which he was a part. “Someone was casting out demons in your name,” John informed Jesus, “but I stopped him because he was not a member of our group.” Now, following Jesus’ third and final prediction of his upcoming fate, James joins the “foot-in-the-mouth” club and John renews his membership. Just after Jesus describes in considerable detail what will soon happen to him, a description that includes such attractive words as condemn, hand over, mock, spit upon, flog, and kill, these two guys step forward and ask him if they can have the privileged seats in glory. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left,” they plead. With this request, all three members of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples–Peter, John and James–have misinterpreted and responded inappropriately to his predictions.

For James and John, their request no doubt reflects the age-old desire for power and a favored position. The importance of the seat on the right and, secondarily, on the left of the host at a banquet is well known in middle eastern culture. The fact that James and John called Jesus aside to make their request in private suggests that they hoped to gain an advantage over the other disciples. The fact that the remaining ten disciples later react with disgust when they hear about James’ and John’s request might similarly imply a regret that they had failed to ask for such preferential treatment for themselves! In any case, Jesus immediately points out that these often bewildered disciples simply do not know what they are asking for. “On the contrary,” they reply. “We know what is going on, and we are well prepared to follow you over the long haul.” “Being positioned on my right and on my left,” Jesus continues, “will involve far more than receiving honor and glory.” One need only look ahead a few chapters to see a rather eery picture of what Jesus had in mind: “And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left (15:27).”
In the same way that he sought earlier to help his potential followers totally rethink their dependancy upon money–“sell what you have and give the proceeds to the poor”–Jesus now asks for a similar overhaul in the way we look at power and position. We are of course aware of blatant misuses of power and position in our world today. We can no doubt name corrupt tyrants who rule their people with an iron fist–Saddam Hussein perhaps comes to mind–and we can similarly think of leaders in today’s corporate world who stop at nothing to gain their desired ends. The disciples, Jesus points out, could do the same. “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,” he says. “You know what it feels like to have a Roman boot stepping down on your neck.” To dwell on such obvious examples, however, might blind ordinary people from seeing the same tendencies in their own lives, just like dwelling on the inordinate and disproportionate riches of the likes of Bill Gates, Brittany Spears and Michael Jordan can blind us to Christ’s call for all of us to give generously of whatever we possess. “The rulers around you might be tyrants,” Jesus allows, “but it should not be that way among you.” Rather, “...whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

From our earliest years, we often sense this apparently instinctual drive to jockey for position and to find our place in the so-called pecking order. I remember well when my family visited the Masai Mara Game Park in Kenya during the migration season, and we watched as thousands upon thousands of animals made their way from one place to the next. You could literally see lines of animals–zebras and wildebeasts, giraffes and elephants–parading in order. But if one animal got out of line and fought for a position further ahead, tempers raged.

We’ve experienced something of that too, haven’t we? Toddlers struggling in a playpen for a favored toy. Children competing for a parent’s undivided attention. Teens hoping desperately that they will be selected first in a pick-up game of baseball or basketball. High school kids hanging out with certain people or acting in particular ways in order to find their niche, their place in the pecking order. A college student assuming that her “A” on a major project is only valuable if everyone else in the class received a lower grade. A husband and wife struggling to secure the most authoritative role in their home. A mother or father refusing to “let go” and give a growing child the space he needs to become increasingly independent. A businessperson secretly “buttering up” the boss in the hopes of gaining a promotion. An elderly woman, otherwise gentle and gracious, turning into a competitive beast in the heat of a seemingly innocent board game. At times, so much of our energy seems to be expended on gaining position and finding our place and coming out on top and winning the game and calling the shots. “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,” Jesus suggests to his disciples. Its tiring, isn’t it? Exhausting. Wearisome. Yet the quest for power and position is a difficult one to abandon. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost.

Here in Mark 10:32-45, Jesus invites us to let it all go. In the same way that he wants us to be free from the incessant urge to accumulate and store away treasures, so too does he provide an exit from the never-ending roller coaster ride that the human thirst for power and position inevitably becomes. “Greatness in my kingdom,” Jesus suggests, “is characterized by humility rather than arrogance, kindness rather than hard-heartedness, and serving rather than controlling.” “Greatness in my kingdom,” Jesus concludes, “involves not only giving your money away, but giving yourself away as well.”

Two observations quickly come to mind as we seek to unpack Jesus’ admittedly radical intentions here–he is, after all, insisting that we put to death one of our most deeply ingrained tendencies. The very fact that the disciples are still arguing here in Mark 10 about personal greatness and human advancement following the third prediction of Jesus’ impending fate only underscores just how overwhelming this urge for power and position can be. The urge to be in charge runs deep!

First, Jesus speaks here, not so much of random acts of service, but of a total reorientation of our approach to life. Random acts of service can of course be helpful, but we would agree that even the world’s nastiest and most self-serving tyrant might on occasion perform a kind and thoughtful deed. Jesus doesn’t simply call us to serve, but to be servants. He doesn’t merely invite us to perform occasional good deeds, but to view all of life as an opportunity to seek the welfare of others, whether those “others” are our friends, enemies, relatives, classmates, business associates, or total strangers. Jesus asks us–he instructs us–to use our time and energy, not simply to advance ourselves and to secure our own welfare, but to help others carry their at times heavy loads.

To be sure, random acts of service are not insignificant in this transformed life that Jesus envisions. They simply are not an end in themselves, as though we could somehow check our list of occasional kind deeds and forget about this text otherwise. Such deeds, however, do play a vital role in our journeys as we daily put to death the urge to control and advance. Such deeds can become pictures and symbols that shape us throughout our lives. I’ll never forget holding a young girl at Mother Theresa’s orphanage in Nairobi. Her gnarled and twisted body was barely three feet long, even though she was 16 years old. She just looked up at me in amazement–she hadn’t been touched by a man in over two years! In an instant, my own wants and needs paled in comparison. At the moment, my achievements and accomplishments mattered very little. “Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service,” concludes Richard Foster, “and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness.” What better way to offset the constant drive to better ourselves than to serve a cup of soup and a piece of bread to the poor? What better way to counteract the urge to be in charge than to visit an inmate in prison? What better way to crucify the need for excessive popularity than to wash someone’s feet? Serving others helps us to stop serving ourselves, and as we stop serving ourselves, we increasingly become the servants that Jesus has in mind here.
Second, as Jesus invites his followers to a life of service, he once again asks us to be just like him. In realizing this simple truth, we can find enormous hope, joy and strength. In realizing this simple truth, we find the context in which abandoning our quest for power and position can actually take place. When I come to recognize that I am doing the will of the Lord, and that I am accepted and loved by him, I no longer sense that almost paralyzing need for constant affirmation from everyone else. When I gain this pervasive sense that serving others is in reality serving Jesus, I no longer have to be in charge. When I truly believe that God is with me and watching over me, I can finally let go–let go of that troublesome and tiresome urge to rule and reign and be in charge and fend for myself and always come out on top. And what a joy and relief letting go actually is.

In The King and I, the king heard Anna’s accusation–“This girl hurt your vanity”–and painfully put down the whip. He then hung his head and ran from the room, an embarrassed and temporarily humiliated man. Dying to the urge to be in charge, the urge for power and position, can be a very painful thing. But Jesus doesn’t invite us to die to self in order to embarrass and humiliate us. On the contrary. He knows that in dying we can, for the first time, genuinely come to life. Imitate Jesus, my friends. At home. At school. At work. At play. Jesus set aside the splendor of heaven, bent down, and washed humanity’s feet.