We Don’t Know What We’re Asking
There’s an old bit of wisdom that states that if one really doesn’t want to know the answer to a particular question, then don’t ask the question. In today’s reading from the book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures and from the Gospel we hear examples of question being asked that in hindsight probably were better off unspoken.
Job up to this point has been asking questions and getting unsatisfactory answers about the calamities and misfortunes that have befallen him. His friends have attempted to answer those questions using the theological and psychological perspectives of their day. The friends’ intentions are good in that they are doing their best to bring Job some comfort in the midst of his grief. In spite of their well meaning attempts to bring comfort, Job’s questions and laments grow in magnitude. Suddenly, God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. Instead of answering Job’s questions, because there really are no answers, God begins to question Job – asking him about the presence and role in creation.
In the Gospel, James and John ask Jesus for the honor of sitting on either side of him in the heavenly realm. I can see Jesus putting his face in his hands because, once again, the disciples don’t get the picture. Ever since Jesus began to talk about the reason for going to Jerusalem, he has been speaking in terms of sacrifice and servanthood not power and prestige. James and John make a request, and it triggers the hostility of the other disciples (who probably been thinking the same thing as James and John).
Like the story from Job, Jesus turns the tables on them and asks two simple questions: 1) can you drink from the cup that I will drink, and 2) can you accept the baptism that awaits me?
To “drink the cup” was a metaphor for suffering. Baptism is used here in a similar sense to signify self-emptying love. Later Paul would write, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Their sharing in the Messiah’s triumph includes participation in his sacrificial death.
James and John once again show their misunderstanding when they confidently reply that they are able to drink this cup; however, at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, they will desert him (Mk. 14:50). Jesus responds that they may share the cup that he himself will drink, but “to sit at my right hand or at my left” (v. 40) is not his to grant. Only God the Father can decide who occupies these preeminent positions. In an ironic twist, it is two thieves who would share the places of honor in Jesus’ glory — not on a heavenly throne but at the crucifixion. To sit at the right or left hand of Jesus is to be included in his final suffering.
The other disciples are enraged by the presumptuous actions of James and John. Thus, beginning in verse 42, Jesus addresses all of them with teachings about true leadership. In a society that prized power, status, and honor, the followers of Jesus were to take a different path — that of servant leadership. The heart of discipleship is service and not privilege. And those who perform such service do it with no thought for recognition. Those who merely reflect the values of this world ultimately can do nothing to transform it.
The person who is truly great is the one who seeks always to provide for the needs and welfare of others — the one who is ready to be the slave of all. In God’s Kingdom the quest for individual power and status is replaced by humility and service to others. Jesus models this service, as the one who “came not to be served but to serve” (v. 45a). Discipleship is not about effectiveness or success as the world sees it, with immediate and predictable results, but whether or not we have faithfully followed Jesus’ example.
What this means for us is that we are called to be servants of one another, as well as to the entire human family. The late Gayle Sayers entitled his autobiography, I am Third, which explicitly outlined his priorities in order of importance. For Sayers, God was first, others (including family) were second, and he placed himself last.
Are we going to get this right all the time? Of course not, that’s why we come back to this place Sunday after Sunday to confess our shortcomings, receive forgiveness and the assurance of the grace to keep going, and finally the spiritual food and drink to continue the journey. Thus encouraged we go out into the world to serve the world in our Lord’s name. Knowing that all of our questions will be answered, even those that we know better than to ask; or, as the old Gospel hymn reminds us:
Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, don’t worry, live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand it all by and by.W.B. Stevens