Sermon; Proper 24B; Mark 10:35-45
Last Sunday we had the encounter with the man of many possessions (I'll just call him Dan) who approached Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. I pointed out that Jesus was on a journey when this happened, most likely at the very beginning of his journey to Jerusalem. We are officially on that journey today as a few verses before today's gospel state explicitly that he was “on the road to Jerusalem.” While on their way Jesus gives his third Passion prediction: “The Son of Man will be handed over . . . and he will be mocked, spit upon, flogged, killed; and will rise again in three days.” It's here where we get today's gospel passage. It's here where James and John, hearing about the resurrection, ask Jesus to grant them to sit at his right and left hand.
I think these three men, Dan and James & John, actually have a lot in common. All three of them are probably ambitious. Dan showed his ambition by looking for ways to inherit items, through his many possessions, and by his willingness to approach Jesus in looking for the ultimate inheritance. Early on in the Gospel of Mark, it's noted that James and John left their father and “the other hired men” to follow Jesus. As I read that, I hear that they were ambitious businessmen since they managed to establish a relatively successful fishing operation with their father.
That ambition drove all of them to look for the next best or big thing. For Dan it was eternal life. For whatever reason he wasn't satisfied with his life in the here and now. His many possessions weren't providing satisfaction or purpose and he was looking for something else. So he comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.
For James and John, they had worked hard their whole lives – commercial fishing is not an easy business. But through their hard work and through their savvy business dealings they were able to grow the family business into a successful fishing enterprise that could afford to hire a crew. They left all that behind to follow this itinerant preacher dude, and for three years they've been on the road, constantly moving, and listening to him preach about being a sacrificial servant. But today he gives a glimpse of his glory and they decide they want to be part of that. So they ask Jesus to grant that they sit, one on his left and one on his right when he came into the kingdom.
Something else they all have in common is that, even though they are all scheming for privilege, none of them are rejected by Jesus. Dan is not rejected for having many possessions. James and John are not rejected for wanting to receive positions of power. What happens is that all three are given specific parameters, but none are required to accept those parameters. The parameters for Dan were to go, sell, give, and follow. The parameters for James and John were to drink from the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Jesus – that is, to drink from the cup of suffering and be baptized with a physical persecution.
A final commonality between the three is that Jesus allows them to choose their path. When Dan heard the parameters of “go, sell, and give,” he chose his possessions over Christ. Jesus doesn't berate or belittle him for that choice, nor does he chase after him. He simply points out to the people that it is exceedingly hard for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God.
When James & John hear the parameters of cup and baptism, they (maybe without full understanding) say they are able to do so. Jesus doesn't reward them for saying they are able, but he does confirm that they will surely follow in his footsteps.
It is within this commonality of free choice where difference lies. When given the choice between possessions or discipleship, Dan chose his possessions. When given the choice of discipleship or finding another path, James and John chose discipleship. And in their case, that discipleship led to persecution: for James it was being beheaded by Herod Agrippa I, and for John it was being exiled to the island of Patmos.
These stories from the last two weeks remind us of at least two things. First, discipleship is hard. It's hard to let go of possessions to which we have become attached. It's hard to put aside our biases about the poor and those living on the margins. It's hard to put ourselves in a position to serve others on a regular basis. It's hard to not let worldly concerns distract us from discipleship. It's hard to sacrifice our all for the kingdom. If this were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Second, Jesus never forces, coerces, or demands that people follow him. He invites people to follow. He gives parameters on following. But the choice to follow is always left to the individual. Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the rest could have said, “No” to his invitation. The tax collector Zacchaeus could have chosen to keep his money. The Samaritan woman and people of her village could have chosen to not listen. But they all chose to listen and, ultimately, they all chose to follow.
Likewise, the people who abandoned Jesus after he proclaimed himself to be the bread of life, Dan, and others, were also allowed to make their choice, where they chose not to follow Jesus but another, easier way.
All of this – the choice of Dan and James & John, the difficulty of discipleship – all of it, points toward the last sentence of today's gospel: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, AND TO GIVE HIS LIFE A RANSOM FOR MANY.”
Notice he doesn't say, “And to give his life a ransom for all.”
He gives his life a ransom for many because discipleship is hard and not everyone will choose to follow. Dan chose not to follow. The people who were offended by him stating he was the bread of life chose not to follow. Those who wanted to throw him off a cliff chose not to follow. And as we are seeing in Revelation, there are those who prefer to follow the path of Rome instead of Christ.
Following Christ is a hard path. This whole discipleship thing is a one-day-at-a-time, sometimes a one-step-at-a-time, affair. Every day we must choose Christ over possessions. Every day we must choose to treat the poor with more compassion than the world says is right. Every day we must choose to serve others. Every day we must choose to pray. Every day we must choose to take up our cross and follow.
The invitation to follow Christ is standing right in front of us. The choice is now ours as to whether or not we are willing to follow.