29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gospel of St. Mark 10:35-45
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I want you all here to know that I, Deacon Jason Batalden, was one of the 4 senior captains of my high school football team. Yes, indeed, approximately 30 years ago, in a small Wyoming town, in a small high school of less then 400 total students, I was one of the 4 seniors chosen that year to be the captain of a not very good high school football team. In fact, if you need proof I have a copy of my senior high school year book just in case there are any doubters among you.
I confess to you, at that moment and at that time in my life I truly believed I had accomplished something. In my tiny little insignificant corner of this planet, in the fall of 1987, I was convinced that I was someone of great importance. If you were to ask my high school friends, my parents, and yes, even my wife, because she was there and she witnessed it all, they all would confirm that I truly believed, and most definitely behaved, as if I was somebody.
I share with you this somewhat embarrassing personal revelation NOT to highlight some self-aggrandized moment in my personal history, rather I share this moment with you because I want you to know that I absolutely identify with James and John.
James and John were among the first who were chosen. They left behind their father and their family owned fishing business and, along with Peter, became the inner most circle of Jesus’s disciples. It might even be said that they were the “Captains” of the team.
James and John believed themselves to be important and who among us would blame them. They had been with Jesus from the beginning. They had witnessed the miracles of Jesus, they themselves had performed miracles, and as Jesus’s fame spread throughout the region so did theirs. They had come to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and to them, that meant that they were very physically close to divine power and authority. Is it any wonder that they took opportunity, out maneuvered their fellow disciples, made known their intentions, and vocalized their commitment to follow Jesus? Can we honestly say that we ourselves would not have acted similarly given the same circumstances and limited understanding and insight into God’s divine and miraculous plan?
Yet, for us sitting here today, it is hard not to judge them. It is easy for us to criticize them for their lack of understanding and find fault with their misguided ambitions. And if that is the case, if we do in fact judge them, then we must also be willing to apply those same standards and judgements to ourselves. For even to this day, we as modern-day Christians, still struggle with our own lack of understanding and misguided ambitions.
Notice, that Jesus does not outright deny their request. Rather, he reminds them that seats of honor are, in fact, privileged to God to dispense as he alone deems fit. However, Jesus did promise that they would all share in his destiny–to share in his destiny of suffering and the endurance of trial and tribulations for the sake of the Gospel. A prophetic promise that I am sure they, at that time, did not yet fully understand.
In an effort to find meaning in today’s Gospel, we must attempt to place ourselves in the same time and space of the disciples. We must try and place ourselves in their “shoes” and try to find ourselves in their weaknesses and fallibilities. For, if we do that, then we too can also hear Jesus’s instruction as he states in v.45, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
There are two important words in this verse which I believe will bring us insight and hope to God’s plan for our lives. The first is the word “servant”. The Greek word translated “servant”, and also “slave” in the previous verse, is “diakonos”. Diakonos is also where the English word “deacon” finds its origin.
The image of the word “diakonos” would have been very clear and easily discernable for the 1st Century Palestinian Jew. Slavery was common and prevalent in their society and culture. Slaves were easily identifiable and their position, or lack thereof, in society was well established. Jesus’s instruction to his disciples that in order to be the “greatest” they must become a servant, was absolutely revolutionary. In addition, his caveat “for many” was also unusual in that a 1st Century slave belonged only to 1 master, not too many.
Jesus’s clearly laid out plan for success in the New Kingdom was obviously not one the disciples would have anticipated. Instead of being lords and rulers he was calling those who followed him to be servants, and not just a servant to one, but a servant to all.
James and John were merely voicing what was already a commonly held belief by all the disciples. They were not unique in their ambition, otherwise the other disciples would not have become so indignant. Notice that Jesus did not chastise their ambition, rather he challenged their motivation and goals. Jesus is very clear in this passage of Scripture. He expects that those who follow him will be ambitious and will strive for success, however, he asks that those who follow him to allow their ambition to be sanctified and self-sacrificial.
The second point I want you to take from this text is the word “ransom”. The Greek word “lytron”, which translated “ransom” refers specifically to the “redemption price” paid for the release of captives. Though his word occurs only two times in the New Testament it is related to an Old Testament concept. In the Old Testament, kinship relations gave rise to the obligation of protection of family relationship. Therefore, family members took responsibility for paying the ransom price for other family members who were taken captive or sold into slavery.
Jesus was not just admonishing his disciples to be servants of all, but he was also directing them as to how they should serve. To serve someone was not enough. Rather, Jesus was instructing his disciples to be servants FOR someone, for their salvation.
As modern-day Christians there may be a temptation to look at today’s Gospel and dismiss its instruction and meaning. It might be possible to pass off Jesus’s call to sanctify our ambitions and commit ourselves to be servants for each other as a call only intended for the 12 Apostles and the early church saints. However, to do that would be both a denial of Jesus’s call to “pick up our cross and follow him” and a missed opportunity to achieve and become all that God has intended for us in this life.
We come to this altar today asking God to give us his strength and endurance as we accept his call to serve one another in the example of his Son, Jesus Christ. Knowing that in our modern-day world the methods and modalities of service may not be what they were in 1st Century Palestine, yet our mission has not changed. To follow Jesus Christ is to imitate him and to imitate him is to be a servant. A servant to one another and to the whole world, not matter their religion, their color, their nationality, or lack of status.
I ask you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to commit yourself, as I commit myself, to live each day in as servants for his service.