Who’s on Last?
August 23, 2015
James and John: two of Jesus’ stalwart disciples. They were brothers, the sons of Zebedee, and with Peter, they were part of the “inner circle,” Jesus’ closest friends, the three most significant disciples. Jesus called James and John the “sons of thunder.” What a perfect nickname! In the this morning’s verses from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, the thunderous duo sidle up to Jesus and ask, “Grant to us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
In other words, Zebedee’s boys want to be first.
Could they be the Abbot and Costello of the Bible, doing their own version of “Who’s On First?”
The general premise behind the famous comedy skit is that Lou Costello wants to join a baseball team managed by Bud Abbot. Before he can do that, he wants to make sure he knows everyone's name on the team...
Who’s On First?
Costello: Look Abbott, if you're the coach, you must know all the players.
Abbott: I certainly do.
Costello: Well you know I've never met the guys. So you'll have to tell me their names, and then I'll know who's playing on the team.
Abbott: Well, let's see, we have on the bags, Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third...
Costello: That's what I want to find out.
Abbott: I say Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.
Costello: Are you the manager?
Costello: You gonna be the coach too?
Costello: And you don't know the fellows' names?
Abbott: Well I should.
Costello: Well then who's on first?
Costello: I mean the fellow's name.
Costello: The guy on first.
Costello: The first baseman.
Costello: The guy playing...
Abbott: Who is on first!
Costello: I'm asking YOU who's on first.
Abbott: That's the man's name.
Costello: That's who's name?
Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.
Abbott: That's it.
Costello: That's who?
[Many thanks to Joe Herrigues and Kirk Venier at 9:00, and Betsy Rueckert and Brad Williams at 10:30, who read the script flawlessly, without any rehearsal!]
“Put me on first!” James and John are begging.
What can you do for us, Jesus? Can you get us the best seats in the house? The sons of thunder are bold in their asking: We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” They know that Jesus has the power, and they want him to use it for their sakes.
What is power, exactly? How does it work and who has it?
A quick definition might be the ability to influence or control other people’s lives. A look at any day’s Yahoo home page will reveal who has that ability, whether we approve or not – the Pope, Donald Trump, credit card companies, terrorists, TV celebrities. It also reveals how slippery power is: those who don’t have it are always ready to yank it out from under those who do. There are only so many head tables in the world, after all, and the game of musical chairs never stops.
When the Zebedee brothers ask that Jesus do whatever they ask, they appear to be after power for power’s sake. But it’s possible that they are after power for faith’s sake. They’ve been close to Jesus from the start, they believe in him and in his message wholeheartedly. They are willing to do whatever it takes to stay with him on his road to victory.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus asks them, “or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” “Sure!” they chorus in unison. “We’re with you all the way, Jesus!”
One way of misunderstanding what Jesus is talking about is the way of John and James: to believe that the new world will be set up just like the old world, only with new leadership in place. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way: “The bad guys at the head table will be removed, their chairs will be fumigated and God’s new crew will be seated, with Jesus in the number one position and the most loyal members of his campaign staff on either side of him.”
“We’re with you all the way, Jesus,” James and John say. “Won’t you put us at your right and left hand?”
“We’re able too,” we want to say, with our own thunder. But we don’t know what he’s talking about either. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is really an anti-Kingdom; the power he claims is completely different from the power we recognize and use, or have used against us.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Jesus says. And tries to explain, one more time, to them and to us.
(The Message, vv. 42-45) Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
Maybe this isn’t a case of replacing the Bad Guys with the Good Guys at the head of the table. Jesus seems to be saying that it’s the people at the bottom who will ultimately come out on top. But we misunderstand him a second way by confusing humility and service with weakness and helplessness. It’s easy to interpret “servanthood” to mean quiet acquiescence as the power-hungry step on us – and everyone else – on their way to the top.
But if that had been the kind of humble service that Jesus was talking about, Christianity wouldn’t exist. If Jesus had believed that the call and power he received from God was to let others have their way, to hang back, to wait until everyone else was done– to be a doormat, in other words – he would never have gotten out of the synagogue! He would have hung around in the back, waiting for someone else to start something that he could join. He would never have claimed the power he needed to flout convention and step outside the lines drawn for him by tradition.
If you define power as the ability to get things done, to bring about something new in an old world, Jesus didn’t reject power. He rejected the ways of getting and using power that he saw going on around him – including in and among his own disciples.
Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer says “It is not hubris to think that you have a role to play in changing the world. [On the contrary], it’s a sensible conclusion to draw. We are created in God’s image, we are members of the body of Christ, we are given power by God’s Spirit. Of course we have a role in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation!
True humility doesn’t shirk power; it claims power. You were created and claimed to be part something larger than yourself. Scaling back that expectation serves no one and nothing but the status quo. And if the status quo serves you well, then that “humility” is the opposite of what Jesus calls servanthood; it is actually a selfish, prideful way of living.
There are two kinds of selfish pride: putting yourself on first and regarding the world’s needs as less important; and denying the power God has given you by standing at the end of the line-up and waiting for someone else to take action.
We find our God-given power – the power of servanthood that Jesus was talking about – when we are most fully engaged in God’s mission. That’s where we see Jesus in the face of our neighbor or our enemy from next door or the next continent. That’s where we see and know who we truly are and what difference we can make for God and Christ.
“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” Jesus said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
The New Revised Standard Translation of that last verse is “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Much ink – literal and digital – has been spilled over the word “ransom” over the last 2,000 years. In the 11th C, the theologian Anselm pushed Christianity toward what many regard as an unhelpful and even harmful direction when he declared that Jesus was the “ransom” that God required as payoff for the debt incurred by Adam and therefore all of humanity.
Somehow that view of Jesus’ death has become predominant even into the 21st century. Along with it has come a picture of God as an abusive father, who required torture and death of his son before he could love us again. Lutheran theologian David Lose says that for the first thousand years of Christianity, no one paid attention to this verse, Mark 10:45. For the second thousand years, after Anselm, everyone did.
“There are a lot of metaphors for the way God redeems God’s people,” Lose says. “This is just one, and a relatively minor one. If we follow the ransom idea we end up asking ‘To whom was this ransom paid?’ A more meaningful path is to ask ‘For whom was this ransom paid?’ The whole world. God gives God’s son for the whole world. Jesus was willing to be part of this giving for everyone, even those who didn’t get what he meant by greatness and service and power. Even those who still don’t get it. This is what it means to be the servant of all.”
Here’s another way of thinking about the ransom that Jesus describes himself to be. A ransom was the money paid to buy back a slave. One person could serve as a ransom for many others only if that person was worth a lot. That single person had to be very valuable to buy back more than one other person, otherwise the trade wouldn’t work.
Jesus says he gives himself as a ransom for many. A king’s ransom, you might say. That’s what Jesus’ life is worth. Not nothing; a lot; enough for many others; enough for the whole world. Now that’s power by giving; greatness through service.
Ron Heifitz, a leader in the field of leadership training, tells a story of when he and his wife were in England, on their way to a speaking engagement. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was approaching (as it is for us, in just a few weeks). They planned to observe the holiday at a synagogue in London.
The day came, and they found themselves still in the English countryside, nowhere near a synagogue. On a bit of a whim, they decided to enter a small, empty Anglican church for a time of spiritual reflection. At the front of the church was a crucifix, and Ron found himself in a bit of spiritual conflict. Here he was, a Jew well-aware of the abuses of Christians toward his people, confronted with the figure of Jesus on the cross. Nevertheless, he asked “Reb Jesus” to tell him about the experience of the cross.
Suddenly, he asked his wife to go outside with him for a small experiment. They sat together near a tree in the deserted church yard, and he asked her to join him in extending their arms in a cruciform pose. After a few moments, he asked her how she felt, to which she replied, “Really vulnerable.” That was it! For this expert in leadership, the experience was a lesson in vulnerability. Jesus was such a great and powerful leader because he was open and vulnerable to the experiences of life.
“Who’s on first?” we ask. “Make it me, Jesus. I’m your most valuable player!”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” he answers. Who’s on first doesn’t even matter.
Writer and Lutheran pastor Michael Coffey summed it up in a poem:
Give us flimsy blue ribbons for first and second place
and a shiny plastic trophy for the dresser top
affirming our fragile, boyish, hurting egos
Make us more special than everyone else’s specialness
put a sash around us and notice that adorable hair curl looping down
so you can truss up our needy, hungry girlish souls
Grant us every wish from Maseratis to mansions
and manufactured beauty to immaculate perfection
so all will be well and no grey spills through the cracks
Then watch us fall into predictable chemical dependency
as we crawl through the numb dumbness
of our lives made false and empty without scar or scuffle
Cry for us as we grieve the years gone by
and every chance we had to sacrifice our golden selves
… stopped by our boundless need to step on and over and win
Comfort us when we slip and somersault on the icy road
toward preciousness and piety and strawberry preserve sweetness
that keep us from ever feeling warm fleshly earthy life
as you did, as you loved with abandon every one and every thing
as you counted the cost of being vulnerably human and then
spent it all in every daily cross of getting yourself out of the way
and letting each Spirit-filled encounter with life’s dirt and dander
urge and move you to crazy ways of embracing the pained
with the same holy hug that held you tight even through death.
Good Lord, whatever you do, don’t give us what we want,
give us what we need. Give us your last place, loser crown,
your humility of embodied love, your humble, open, crucified arms.
Give to us aging boys and girls hearts and minds and souls
of men and women who know their lives have meaning
when we give them away, losing as beautifully as you.
Michael Coffey. “Give Us Flimsy Blue Ribbons” Posted on Ocotillo Pub, October 17, 2012. http://www.ocotillopub.org/2012/10/do-for-us-whatever-we-ask.html
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. October 18, 2006. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2006/10/proper_24_year_.html
Larry Patten. Who’s On Last? Posted October 9, 2012. http://www.larrypatten.com/2012/10/09/whos-on-last/
Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, David Lose, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brainwave #257 - Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. Lectionary Texts for October 21, 2012. Posted October 14, 2012 on Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=333
Abbott and Costello. “Who’s On First?” transcript found at http://www.baseball-almanac.com/humor4.shtml