It is easy to assume that relationship with God translates into entitlement. Career advancement, upward mobility, good assignments, prominent positions – that’s what so many of us aspire to. The world’s image of greatness is hierarchical, with the greatest at the pinnacle of the pyramid and God hovering over the top. The closer one gets to the pinnacle, the closer one is to greatness. Success, upward mobility and being served are signs, rewards, of faithfulness. That’s how it’s seen.
In Mark 10:35-45 we have the account of James and John requesting the best seats in heaven. They were caught up in the existing power structure ideas, and they were ambitious. It’s easy for us to condemn their words and their attitude. How could they have so misunderstood Jesus? How could they make this attempt to carve out what they saw as a suitable niche for themselves? How could they be so ambitious? How could they fail to see how greatly their request ran counter to the teaching and lifestyle of Jesus?
Yet do we not still make precisely the same mistakes? We are ambitious. We establish our power structures, yes, even within the church, and jealously guard them. We are concerned that we should be given our rightful, and well earned, place. We stand there, so often, with James and John looking to move up the hierarchy.
The message needs to be shouted at us too. It’s just not like that. Jesus responds to this request by addressing all of the disciples. This is not how it is with us. This is not our way. We do things differently.
As Nick Page puts it (in “The Wrong Messiah”) – “The disciples are behaving childishly, but they need to behave like children. Jesus’ teaching on leadership is informed all the time by a subversion of the models he sees around him. Leadership, for Jesus, is all bound up with service. …. It is an upside-down world, where the last is first, where the landless day labourer who works for one hour gets the same rate as those who worked all day, where those who expect the seats of honour will get put at the other end of the table.”
At least James and John knew where true greatness lay. They may not have understood what they were asking when they asked to be seated on the right hand and left hand of Jesus - but they were asking the right person. They suspected that Jesus was the one who would ‘come into glory’, even though they did not understand the full implication of their request
Jesus’ response to James and John challenges popular assumptions about greatness, power and prominence. Jesus’ way leads in a different direction. Out there, says Jesus, leadership is power, with all its trappings and privileges. With us, he says, leadership is service, with all its hard work and obligations. First – last. Last – first. In John’s Gospel the point will be made with a towel and basin, and twelve pairs of dirty feet, on the night before the point is really made. Here, in Mark’s Gospel, it is put like this: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.