Podcast Reflections

Sermon for Trinity 20 (2021)

Listen to a sermon for Trinity 20 (Proper 24), Sunday 17 October 2021

In today’s gospel reading Jesus emphasizes the importance of humility and service.

Jesus insists that self-sacrificial giving is the only ‘greatness’ recognized by God.

Jesus is telling us to look at our place in the world ‘upside down’ … Instead of feeing our ambition to climb the ladder and attain ‘greatness’, we must sacrificially serve others.

Our gospel reading opens as Jesus has been speaking of his looming death and resurrection.

In the midst of this portentous pronouncement, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask him to sign a ‘blank cheque’.

I am not sure there is any other way of describing their question:  Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.

I wonder how many of us would fall into the trap of offering an unguarded ‘Yes’ to such a question?

Of course, Jesus does not fall into the trap either!

Jesus asks: What is it you want me to do for you?

Then comes the demand: Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

I say ‘demand’ because that is what it is … The Greek word we translate as grant is, in fact, an imperative verb … it is not a request, it is a command!

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are expressing their sense of ‘entitlement’, their ‘right’ to a place at the heavenly ‘top table’!

In reality, the request of James and John was a statement of unbounded and uncaring ambition … They had been picked to be in the ‘top 12’, the company of Jesus’ closest companions … but, that wasn’t enough … they wanted more … they, without any thought for the other 10, wanted to be the ‘top 2’.

Jesus’ response is measured and explains the situation precisely … You do not know what you are asking.

Sadly, most of us pray in the same manner as James and John … we like to use the imperative verb … we like to tell Jesus what to do!

We like to reverse a once well-known slogan and turn it into … Ask not what you can do for your God; ask what your God can do for you.

Despite the audacious nature of the brothers’ request, Jesus neither rebukes nor rejects them … Instead he offers perspective and a warning.

Jesus wants James and John to understand the need to climb down the ladder to greatness.

Jesus also warns of what the attainment of such greatness will entail … Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?

Although we may, from our 21st century standpoint, understand what Jesus is saying, we have to also understand that the significance of Jesus’ words would not have been lost on James and John.

In the ancient world the words cup and baptism were analogous with ‘suffering’.

Jesus was openly asking the two brothers if they are ready to share in the suffering that Jesus has only just described.

Remember, James and John did not ask to share in an inglorious death … They asked for recognition … not crucifixion.

But … James and John respond with: We are able!

Again the original Greek is interesting … The single word that is translated as we are able, can also be translated as we are powerful.

We have to consider whether their minds were still set on worldly victory … military and political greatness …

Remember, we are looking at all this from a post-resurrection standpoint … James and John were not!

After this exchange between Jesus and the sons of Zebedee, we see the anger of the other ten disciples … and we hear Jesus’ teaching on humility and service.

Jesus says …

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.

But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

In these words Jesus is calling us to ‘out-serve’ others … to climb down that ladder to greatness.

Be content with serving in small ways … ways that do not show off how ‘good’ we are.

Humbly serve in every corner of our lives … in Church and in the world … never forgetting Christ’s sacrifice for us!

So … let us stop listening to those who put themselves at the top of the ladder … unless, of course, they are showing us how to respond  to Christ’s call to climb down the ladder of greatness.