In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of crosses and crowns. The apostles have only crowns in mind, but the Lord Jesus knows the price of that crown. And thus, he must teach them, and us, that crowns, namely the things that we value most, come only through the cross.
It may help to remember the context of this gospel. Jesus is making his final journey to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the Cross, and has announced this Cross already, on two occasions, to his disciples. But all through this final journey, they prove unwilling, and or incapable of grasping what he is trying to teach them.
Today’s gospel is a perfect illustration of a common biblical theme known as the inept response. What this refers to is the common pattern in the gospels wherein Jesus will give a profound and important teaching, and within a matter of verses, or even just a few words, the apostles demonstrate that they have absolutely no understanding of what he just told them.
Today’s gospel illustrates the inept response. You may recall that on the previous two Sundays, the Lord gave two critically important teachings. Two weeks ago he stood a young child in their midst and spoke of the child as being truly great. He also warned that we must be able to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Last week, he warned of the pernicious effects of wealth, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
And yet, as this gospel opens, on very heels of those teachings, James and John, and later all the apostles, wish honors upon themselves. They want seats at the head of the table, high offices in the Kingdom, which they still conceive of, in very worldly terms. Nevermind, that Jesus has taught them that the place of honor is not at the head of the table, or even at the foot of the table. The place of honor is for those who wait on tables.
And thus we see here the “inept response.” The apostles, and us, we just don’t get it. No matter how clear Jesus is, no matter how often he repeats himself, we just don’t get it.
Let’s look at this gospel in 3 specific stages.
I. Misplaced Priorities–the Gospel opens with James and John approaching the Lord with an inept question, even a demand. “Grant that in your glory, we may sit, one that you right, and the other at your left.”
As we have already seen, this is a misplaced priority. Their understanding of the places of honor is worldly. Further, they want to move right to the head of the table. They want the Lord merely to grant them this honor. Even in a worldly way of thinking, places of leadership, places a high honor, must usually be earned. Some are born into royalty, but most of the rest of us attain to leadership and honors only after years of effort. Thus, even from a worldly point of view, James and John are being utterly bold, and exhibit little understanding that prior to honors comes labor, comes the earning of it. Their priorities are misplaced. They want to crown but without the cross.
II. Major Price–the Lord Jesus, replies to them, “You do not know what you are asking! Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Was Jesus astonished, was he amused, or was he sad? It is not easy to say. But the bottom line is clear, they had absolutely no idea what they were asking. And neither do we. So often we want blessings, we want honors, we want seats in the high places. But we give little thought to the crosses that are necessary both to get there, and to stay there.
Those who finally do attain to leadership, often know what cross it is. It can be lonely, there are many pressures, often there are many long hours, and the heavy weight of a sense of responsibility. True leadership has its perks, but it is hard, and most leaders know also the consistent sting of criticism and isolation.
There is an old joke among bishops, to the effect that “When a man becomes a bishop, two things are certain. He will never again have a bad meal. And he will never again hear the truth.” Leaders in many other walks of life know something very similar.
And thus the Lord Jesus wonders if James and John have any idea what they are really talking about, what they are really asking for. His question is also poignant, for he has been trying to teach them of the kind of passion, the pain, the crucifixion that awaits him, and which he must endure before he, even the Lord of glory, must endure before entering into his glory. No, not only do they not know what they are asking, they just don’t get it.
And this must make the Lord very sad. Sometimes we underestimate the kind of suffering the Lord endured long before the garden of Gethsemane that fateful night, as the sufferings of his passion began in earnest. To one degree or another, prior to that evening, the Lord endured a kind of death by a thousand cuts: enemies trying to trap him, crowds wanting medical miracles but no true healing, strident and judgmental Pharisees, and other religious leaders, ridicule, and disciples who walked away from him as he talked on the Eucharist. And even the Twelve to whom he looked for friendship, seemed completely disconnected from what he is trying to teach them. He also knew that one would betray him, another deny him, and all but one, would abandon him, and never make it to the foot of the cross. Oh the grief that they gave the Lord.
And Oh the grief that we continue to offer up, how we continue to offend his external glory and be difficult cases for the Lord. How easy it is for us to be hardheaded, stubborn, to have a neck of iron and a forehead of brass! No, it is hard to scorn the apostles, for we do the very same things
To them and to us the Lord can only remind us of the major price, the true cost. No cross, no crown! Ultimately, Heaven costs everything, for we must leave all this world behind to attain to heaven. The Easter Sunday of glory, whether in this world or in the world to come, is accessed only by a journey through Good Friday.
It is a major price, but it is a price that James and John seem dismissive of. They simply state, categorically, that they are able to drink the cup the Lord drinks, and to be baptized into his death. But again, they have no idea what they’re talking about. Neither do most of us.
III. Medicinal Prescription–the other apostles join in the confusion, and the inept response by becoming indignant that James and John tried to get special dibs on the seats of honor. Their indignity simply shows that they share in the inept response and they have no idea of anything the Lord is talking about.
Thus the Lord tries to bring the big picture of the cross, more down to earth. He tries to make it plain. He says that the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all, indeed, the slave of all. Is this plain enough? It is not those who sit at the head of the table, even those who sit at the foot of the table, nor any place at the table. The greatest are those who wait on the table, who serve.
Do they get it? Probably not. Neither do we. It takes most of us a lifetime before we finally get it through our thick skulls, that the point in life is not to have the corner office with a view. We have everything upside down, and exactly backwards. We are not rich in what matters to God. We think of bank accounts, addresses, the square footage of homes, salaries and titles, not things of service.
It may take our death beds before we finally realize that the greatest people in our lives are those with the ministry of care, those who feed us, perhaps change our bandages, and give us basic care.
We like these apostles can be so foolish. At the end of the day, and at our final judgment, God will not care about the square footage of our house, our titles and honors. What will capture his notice is when we served, when we gave a cup of cold water, or food for the hungry. When we instruct the ignorant, prayed for the dying and cared for the needs of the poor. He will look for the calluses and the wounds of our service, of our proclamation of his kingdom. And he will tell us that what we did for the least we did for him
Don’t miss the point of this gospel. Life is not what we usually think. There is no crown without the cross. Honors in the kingdom, crowns and the kingdom, are reserved for those who serve, who take up the cross of washing the feet of others, of going to the lowest places.
In today’s gospel, the Lord speaks of crosses and crowns, and in that very order. We will not gain, we cannot gain, any crown in his kingdom without being baptized into his death, into his cross, into the humble servitude of dying for others in loving service.