Year B, Lectionary 29
October 18, 2015
Pastor David Tryggestad
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
“Don’t you wish your mother were here?!”
I think we were still in our 20s when my wife, Lynn, and I visited her home in Charles City, Iowa. Damon, one of her best friends from high school, came over, along with his mother, a good friend of Lynn’s mother. Damon and Lynn had performed many skits, variety shows, and musicals together in school and they were catching up on old stories. There was a lot of laughter.
It wasn’t long, however, when it became the two mothers who were telling the stories, each about the many accomplishments of her own offspring, so that it turned into a kind of back-and-forth duel: “My son, Damon . . .” “Well, my daughter, Lynn . . .” There seemed to be no curb on hyperbole; each zealous mother tried to outdo the other, it seemed to me.
Until, finally, Damon turned to me and exclaimed, “Don’t you wish your mother were here?!”
Mothers can be ferocious promoters of their own children.
I tell this story because our Gospel story from Mark is retold by Matthew, whose Gospel came later. It seems Matthew must have been embarrassed by the question of the disciples, James and John: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. . . . Grant us so sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” So when Matthew tells the story, it is not the disciples who ask the question; rather, it is their mother (Matthew 20:20-22). Matthew would blame their mother for their obtuseness as well as their self-promoting agenda.
As Oprah once famously said, “The time finally comes when we have to stop blaming our mothers for everything that’s wrong with our lives.”
Our Gospel writer, Mark, would agree. Throughout his telling of the Gospel story, Mark holds nothing back in depicting Jesus’ disciples as they truly were: fearful, disbelieving, jealous, and slow to understand.
Today’s Gospel story comes immediately on the heels of Jesus’ third passion prediction—his open and straight talk about how he will suffer and die in Jerusalem, and on the third day be raised. And in each and every instance, the disciples don’t get it. In fact, it is almost as if they refuse to believe it.
You will recall that, in the instance of the first passion prediction, the disciple Peter rebukes Jesus (Mark 8:31-32). We can hear him say, as the Gospel writer Matthew puts it, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22). We wonder if he is thinking, “If this can happen to Jesus, then it might also happen to us.”
In the sequence of the second passion prediction, the disciples are arguing amongst themselves who is the greatest (Mark 9:30-34).
Today’s Gospel story comes immediately following Jesus’ third passion prediction:
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:33-34)
It doesn’t get any clearer than that!
Yet immediately James and John put themselves forward requesting places of honor.
How ironic it is that those disciples closest to Jesus, his “inner circle” of Peter, James, and John, those who share some of Jesus’ most intimate moments, are precisely the three specifically implicated in seeming to reject Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death. Or do they just not get it?
The disciples want prestige; Jesus offers servanthood:
“. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)
This past Friday night, I went to the movie, He Named Me Malala. It is a documentary of the life of Malala Yousafzai, the teenaged girl from Pakistan who was shot in the head and left for dead by the Taliban because she spoke out for the education of girls and refused to be silenced, even under threat of death. In 2009, the summer Malala turned 12 years old, she wrote a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym, telling about life under the control of the Taliban in their efforts to eradicate education for girls, as they publicly intimidated individuals and families and bombed schools. The next summer a New York Times documentary brought Malala international recognition, and, despite the threat of violence from the Taliban, she continued to speak out against the Taliban and to advocate for education. In 2012, when she was only 15, she was shot through the head, and, for many days, her life hung in the balance. Her recovery was nothing short of miraculous, though she is left with some permanent impairment. Rather than being silenced, the assassination attempt has emboldened her more than ever, though she is not able to return to the country she loves and calls home. In 2014, she was named co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest Nobel laureate in history, at age 17.
[My wife, a retired high school English teacher, never ceased to grieve over how much so many of her students resented being in school.]
Since seeing the movie, I can’t help but compare the courage of a teenaged girl to the faithlessness of Jesus’ disciples.
But the story’s not over.
Jesus says to James and John, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized . . .” Jesus speaks metaphorically of suffering. Even Jesus himself grieves over the cup of his pending suffering; in the Garden of Gethsemane, he implores, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me . . .” (Mark 14:36). But then he continues, “. . . yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
The disciples would indeed drink the cup of suffering that Jesus drinks, and they would indeed be baptized with the baptism of suffering with which Jesus is baptized.
A striking photo hangs both in the office and in the pastor’s study here at Our Savior’s: the cross hanging over the altar at the front of the sanctuary. Two spotlights illuminate the scene, one from each side. The resulting two shadows outline a cross to the right and another to the left of the central cross. I am reminded of the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion on Golgotha, with three crosses, one to Jesus’ right and the other to his left.
Two criminals died with Jesus on Golgotha. But the disciples would, each in their turn, take their turns in drinking the cup and being baptized in suffering. James—the same James in our Gospel story—would be the first disciple to die, not on a cross, but by the sword. Peter, according to tradition, would be crucified upside down. He insisted he was unworthy to be crucified upright, as his Lord was. Indeed, all the disciples would suffer persecution and all but one would be put to death for their faithfulness. As the story unfolded, the portrayal that Mark paints of obtuse and faithless disciples proves, in the end, to be incomplete. All served their Lord with devotion and even joy.
The only disciple not to be killed for his devotion to Jesus, according to tradition, was John, the John of our Gospel story today. Some scholars believe it was the same John who left us with these words: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (I John 3:16). John saw it; he witnessed it; and he experienced the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
If the disciple John in our Gospel story reflects each of us in our own halting and feeble discipleship, we can take heart and rejoice that this same John who penned these words, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . .” helps us to see who we may become in our own response to Jesus: “. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Thanks be to God!