I think one of the downfalls of having a background in psychology is that you become a watcher of people. Whether you like it or not, it just becomes something you do. And you don’t just watch people, you pay attention to what they are doing and try to figure out just exactly why they are doing what they are doing.
Take kids for instance. I used to direct an after school program. No matter what we were doing, if it involved a line, all the kids would try to get to the front of the line. If we were going outside, there would be a push to be the first one by the door. It we were going to have a snack, there would be a push to be the first one by the window. It didn’t matter what, there was always the push to be the first one in line.
This behavior confused me. If we were all going to be going outside, then why was there such a rush to be the first one? We always had enough snacks for everyone. Why would there be such a rush to be sure to be the first to get one? What was so important about being the first person to get something?
Well, I was thinking about this while swerving in and out of traffic while trying to get to the Meridian Mall. And while I was driving, I started thinking: Why was I rushing? Why did I need to get ahead of everyone else? It was not like the mall was going to disappear at a certain time; it would still be there. So why was I rushing? It really struck me as weird. Why was I putting so much effort into rushing, pushing, and trying to get there first?
Now, not to be so hard on myself and on the kids, but trying to be first does make some sense. When things are limited, trying to get there first makes real sense. If you are not one of the first, you may not get what you want. I don’t know if you remember, now what is many years ago, the whole big uproar over Cabbage Patch Kid dolls. I remember people getting into fights just to get one of these things. People would wait in line for hours and then push and fight just to one of the few dolls that were available. If you wanted one, you had to be first.
I guess we want to be first because we want our own part of the limited supplies that there are. And not only do we want a part, we want the best of it all. We want to be first so we can have the best seat in the house, the best gaming system, or the best new gadgets there are. We want to be first so we can get the best. And really, wanting what is best is quite natural. If you have the best, you tend to live better; you tend to live longer. Having the best is not a bad thing.
So when we look at James and John in today’s gospel reading, we can understand what they are trying to do. They really are not doing anything that is all that unnatural. They wanted to be assured that they would have the best places, the places next to Jesus. I guess it would be like having front row seats at a concert. To sit at someone’s right and left would be to have your status publicly acknowledged. To sit at someone’s right and left would be to say that these people are “second in command.” By sitting on someone’s right and left, you get to bask in the light of the person who is sitting at the head.
John and James wanted these positions. They wanted to be seen as those who were in power. They wanted to bask in Jesus’ light. They were like the people waiting to the Cabbage Patch Kids, they wanted to be there first so they could get the best. Although they wanted to be in positions of power, they really didn’t seem to understand the whole message of Jesus.
But not too surprisingly, the other disciples didn’t seem to understand the message either. The others become angry with James and John. I am guessing the reason the others were angry was because they had not thought of asking first! When they heard James and John’s request, their thought was probably, “Why didn’t I think of that!” The other disciples didn’t want James and John to get the best positions, so they got angry with the two. But, you know, the other disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ message either.
Our reading for today follows the stories of bringing the children to Jesus and the rich young man. In these past stories, Jesus was showing them, and showing us, that in the reign of God, things are not always as they seem. The young children are the ones Jesus tells should be brought to him, and all the wealth in the world cannot buy our salvation. What we see is not what is real.
The reign of God that Jesus has been trying to show is the reign of abundance. In the reign of God, the blind see and the deaf hear. The ill are made well and the poor hear the good news. The reign of God is not filled with Cabbage Patch dolls or other things that will parish. The reign of God is unlimited!
The request of James and John, and the other disciples’ response to this request, shows us just how much they believe in a limited God. The disciples were constantly with Jesus. They saw how Jesus healed, how Jesus taught. They heard Jesus tell that the reign of God is at hand. But even with all of that “proof,” the disciples still didn’t get it. Even with all they had seen with their own eyes, they still believed that the world of limitations that they saw around them was the world of reality. Even though they saw the abundance poured out through Jesus, they persisted to believe in the world of scarcity.
Our whole economy is powered by our belief in scarcity. Our prices are set, based on how scarce an item is; whether this scarcity is real or perceived. Because this belief in scarcity surrounds us, it is hard for us to think in any other manner. However, Jesus presents us with a different worldview, a radically different worldview.
So often we say that Jesus presents a radically different view of the world, but have we really considered how different this is? Jesus does not view the world from a viewpoint of scarcity. Jesus does not see the limits that we impose on the world. Jesus functions within a worldview of abundance and tries to pass this view on to his followers. He tells them that whoever wishes to be great must become a servant and whoever wishes to be first must become a slave to all. We have been given a choice: if we wish to be first, we must become a slave, if we wish to be great, we must become a servant.
Have you ever been someplace with a caterer? Often the staff is allowed to eat. But when do the servants eat? (Or maybe I should call them “waitstaff.”) Do they eat first? Do they eat before the people at the party? No, they would eat after the party is over and all of the people left. It is then that they can eat. But lets think of something else. What would happen if the servers knew that the way they were serving the food would result in there being no food left for them to eat? What would happen then? Would the servers truly serve? Would they give all they were supposed to give or would they hold some back some food for themselves? To truly serve, there needs to be the assurance that there will be enough for all. After the guest have eaten their fill, the servers need to be the assurance that there will also be enough left for them. If there is not the assurance of abundance, the servants will hold back food for themselves and not truly serve as they should. Because we are human, we can only truly serve when we have the assurance that there will be enough. When we are assured that there is an abundance, it is then that we humans can serve with a loving heart.
Jesus calls us to be servants. He wants us to go out and serve with a happy heart. When he calls us to drink the cup that he drinks and to be baptized with his baptism, Jesus is calling us to God’s reign of abundance. In these words, Jesus is calling us to give our lives in the service of others. If we believe that God is limited, like Cabbage Patch dolls, we will have trouble giving our life, but Jesus shows us that we have life in abundance. In the reign of God, there is so much life that death does not even have the final say. Although Jesus was killed on the cross, death did not have the final word. In the reign of God, abundance of life will always have the final word.
What is interesting is that Jesus does not say who will sit at his right and left. Jesus says that is for God to decide. So who does God choose to sit in these coveted positions? Well, when Jesus is crucified, who flanks him on the cross? Is it his disciples? No, when Christ is undergoing the ultimate humiliation, the two who are on his right and left are two criminals. Two recognized sinners are placed in the positions of power! God’s love for us is so abundant that even the criminals are included! In God’s reign, even the sinners are given positions of honor!
We can be servants because we know there is an abundance. We can be generous because Christ shows us that scarcity is an illusion. The world of God is not a Cabbage Patch kind of world! It is a world where leaders are servants. It is a world where the powerful are lowered and the lowly are raised up. It is a world where the killed becomes the savior who brings eternal life. The world of God is the world where the place of honor is reserved for you and for me. The world of God is where all are wanted, all are cared for, all are loved. We don’t need to rush, we don’t need to be first, we don’t need to grasp for whatever we can get. The God love has placed a world of abundant love right in our midst! We just need to look with the eyes of faith.