Some years ago, well, many years ago, when I was in law school, someone told this joke: Due to an emergency among the secretarial staff of a family law firm, one of the junior members of the firm found himself handling the phones one day. The more senior members of the firm included his father, his uncle and his older brother. This phone answerer had done pretty well and it was coming on the lunch hour. Another call came in. He answered it again: Jackson, Jackson, Jackson and Jackson. To whom may I direct your call?
I would like to speak with Mr. Jackson.
I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson is at a lunch meeting and is not expected back until 3:00.
Well then, I would like to speak with Mr. Jackson.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson is in court at this time.
Oh. Perhaps then, I could talk with Mr. Jackson.
Mr. Jackson is not available as he is out of town taking depositions.
I see. Well, then. Would you please put me through to Mr. Jackson.
This is he. How can I help you?
Pecking order. This Mr. Jackson knew his place. He was the lowest on the totem pole of the firm of Jackson, Jackson, Jackson and Jackson. Where does one fit in the overall scheme of things? Where is our rightful place? How do we secure our rightful place?
So, today as we read this story about James and John, don’t we just kind of shake our heads at their presumptuousness? Who do they think they are!!?? Who indeed.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks with his disciples of his coming arrest, trial, suffering and death three separate times as they are traveling toward Jerusalem where all of this will happen. Each time, Jesus’ words are very simple – the time is coming when the Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of the authorities and he will be rejected and will be tried and will suffer and will be put to death and will rise again.
After he said this the first time, Peter was outraged – “No Lord! It will not be.” Jesus listened to Peter’s tirade and then taught the disciples saying, “If you want to save your life you will lose it.”
Then after he told them this again some weeks later, they didn’t say anything to Jesus about it because they were afraid. But among themselves they were debating who it was among them who was the greatest. They ‘fessed up to Jesus who said to them, “Whoever is to be first, must be the last and must serve all.”
And today we hear of the third time in much more detail and directness – we can almost hear him say, “Listen to me! We’re headed to Jerusalem. When we get there, the church leaders are going to pass judgment on me and hand me over to the civil authorities who will sentence me to death and they will make it so bad for me that I might even wish that I would die. And three days after dying, I will rise.”
So, what is the response this time? James and John are brothers and they, along with Peter, are two of the closest of Jesus’ friends. They hear these words of Jesus again and then have a conversation among themselves and a proposition for Jesus.
At my house over the years, I have become known for my “deals.” One night, it might be like this: “Earl, I’ll make you a deal – I got dishes tonight.” Another used in earlier years might have been this: “Matt, I’ll make you a deal – you take out the garbage.” Now, I think that Earl will agree with me that my “deals” were not always self-serving. But we hear today James and John approaching Jesus with “a deal.” They say, “Let the two of us sit at your right and left hands when you come into your glory.”
Pecking order. James and John were staking out their turf.
And Jesus’ response is nearly identical to the other responses he made to the disciples as they tried to figure out what to do or say in light of Jesus telling them what was awaiting him in Jerusalem. Jesus said, “You don’t get it yet. But let me tell you again – things in the kingdom of God are radically different from how things are in our society. You want to be great, do you?? Well, pick up a mop! You want to be first in the Kingdom? Well, go wash the dishes.”
But see, the point isn’t about scoring points by doing menial chores so that we can gain a higher position on the totem pole. The point is that as disciples we don’t care about the totem pole at all. One writer said about Mother Teresa that, if we could monitor her thoughts, we probably wouldn’t hear this monologue: AH, that Peace Prize, now that would be a great thing to have. So I think I’ll go and serve the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. That should clinch it for me. That would be great.
The reason that Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize is that it was the last thing on her mind.
We are not servants and slaves SO THAT we may gain entrance into the Kingdom. We are servants and slaves BECAUSE we have been brought into the Kingdom – not by any of our own actions but purely because of the grace of God.
One of my favorite all time movies is Camelot. And one of my all-time favorite scenes is when King Arthur comes up with a whole new way of thinking about being a knight, about being a king, about organizing a kingdom. King Arthur decides that there will not be an ordinary rectangular table for the knights of Camelot to meet at – a table with a clearly established head and chairs to the right and left of the head of the table. A table that clearly reflects rankings in the kingdom. No, King Arthur says that the knights and king of this kingdom will meet at a Round Table! Imagine that! One without a head, one without a ranking, one at which each knight has equal rank and equal say. One where Mr. Jackson would answer the phone and say, “This is he” the first time.
Well, the Church is like that. No human occupies the position at the head of the table. Rather, we are a round table with Christ at our center. There is not a pecking order. We each have the honorable role of being a servant.
May it be so.