Several years ago the book The Prayer of Jabez was all the rage. Its author wrote it as a 30-day guide to increasing “blessings” in one’s life. He based it on a relatively obscure scripture passage (1 Chronicles 4:9-10):
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.” Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request. (NIV)
The theological approach presented in “Jabez” is pretty much in line with the so-called prosperity gospel. In its most concise form this means that if you ask sincerely and regularly, God will give you whatever you want.
Last week’s Gospel lection brought us the familiar story of the rich man who asked Jesus how he could obtain eternal life. But when he was told he’d need to sell everything he owned and give to the poor, well that was, as they say, just a bridge too far. This week, instead of money being at the heart of kingdom values, we find the equally important topic of power and position:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but 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 10:35-45 NRSV
As I noted a few weeks ago in regard to a similar story, James and John were still pretty clueless about Jesus’ mission and purpose by seeking a position on either side of him “in glory.” Matthew’s version of this story adds the added detail that it was actually the brothers’ mother who wanted the glory. Most likely Matthew was simply trying to deflect blame away from the disciples and their mom was, perhaps, the handiest way to do that. In any event, the other disciples were upset with the pair, but it’s not clear whether they believed the two were to blame or whether they were sorry they’d been beat to the punch.
The bottom line in all this is that Jesus once more tried to get through to his disciples before he could teach anybody else that he was a “servant Messiah.” To share in “his cup” encompassed far more than the first twelve disciples realized, perhaps because their ideas of a national savior were tied to overthrowing the hated Romans. As well, Jesus turned attention away from individual effort; we’re all in this “saving/serving” business together. Correspondingly, to be part of Christ’s kingdom has nothing to do with place (much less monetary rewards) in this world or the next and everything to do with humble servanthood.
*Adapted from 2012 ForeWords archives blog post