The lectionary omits three verses between week 28 (Mark 10:17-31) and week 29 of Ordinary time (Mark 10:35-45). It seems like an easy thing to skip: Just another prediction of Jesus’ coming passion and resurrection.
But the skipped bits are pretty crucial: Jesus’ prediction sets up James and John’s request about their place with Jesus in glory.
In this portion of Mark the passion predictions (sometimes omitted by the Lectionary) are interwoven with the injunctions about leadership and servanthood (mostly included). The combination seems important to Mark.
The story hangs together tightly, taking three interesting turns:
1. James and John make a truly honest prayer request.
2. Jesus instead gives them a great conversation
3. When the others complain, Jesus reminds them of the main point.
James and John Make a Truly Honest Request
I always smile when I hear James and John, those Sons of Thunder, burst forth with their little request. I particularly love the ramp-up:
Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10:35 NRSV)
That, my friend, is honesty in prayer. None of the familiar Gethsemane hedging: “Not my will, but thine be done!”
No, this is straightforward human nature face to face with God. Every time I pray I want God to do whatever I ask of him.
It seems nearly universal. Take a look at the books on prayer that have been really big sellers in recent decades: A whole lot of what we want to know about prayer is how to get God to ANSWER and to answer with EXACTLY what we ask for.
We really like those bits in John’s Gospel where Jesus promises that God will grant whatever we ask in his name.
So I smile at James and John, caught on camera saying what I am generally afraid to admit that I mean.
Jesus seems to have found it amusing as well. The mic was a bit far from his mouth, so we miss him saying,
Yeah, you and everybody else.
But can’t you see his wry smile as he asks,
What is it you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36 NRSV)
Nothing much. Nothing here in this life — too humble for that. But Jesus talked about rising from the dead, and he’s said a lot about his coming kingdom.
So how about front row seats, Jesus? Could we sit at the main table, guests of honor, at the big final banquet?
Really they seem to be thinking longer term:
What we really want is to be honored forever, as your main dudes. We’ve got your back down here, Lord. How about you show everybody, for all eternity, that you like us best. Right and left. Up beside you. How about it, huh? Can we? Can we?
But hey, they were honest. That’s more than many of us can say about our prayer lives.
Jesus Gives Them a Great Conversation
John might have been disappointed that Jesus didn’t agree to the request. After all, John was all set to put those passages in his Gospel saying Jesus would do whatever we ask in his name.
But Jesus is not so compliant here in Mark.
The thing to notice, though, O you person of prayer, is that Jesus takes the question really seriously. He engages with James and John on a couple different aspects of what they have asked.
Jesus’ first point is actually that James and John haven’t taken their own question seriously enough:
You do not know what you are asking.” (Mark 10:38 NRSV)
he says simply enough.
And that’s a good word to all of us who take courage and speak to God about what we really want. We think we are on firm ground about our own needs and wants — but Jesus is likely enough to tell us that our little request is tied to something much bigger.
We just don’t know the implications, the unforeseen consequences to ourselves or to others. And so, as to James and John, Jesus tells us
The conversation goes on, though. Jesus doesn’t stop at telling James and John that they don’t understand their own request. Jesus fully declares that he cannot actually give what they ask for.
…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.” (Mark 10:40 NRSV)
Which can be paraphrased as
Sorry — I actually can’t give you what you prayed for.
Jesus’ answer speaks to some of the intellectual puzzles of prayer. We are stymied at an all-loving, all-powerful God who promises to do what we ask — but doesn’t.
Jesus doesn’t deny that the Triune God could do what we ask. He just points out that the Triune God already has firm plans with regard to the topics we’ve brought up.
Most poignantly, we human beings frequently pray for the life of a loved one. But even if someone recovers from illness today, they will die of something, someday. That’s how God has arranged this world, and the nature of the life we have been given.
I wonder how often, if we could only hear him, Jesus responds to our urgent requests, “To do what you ask is not mine to grant,” and all because of the nature of the world God has created.
So Jesus tells us “No,” but first he invites us to come near, he invites us to speak, and he genuinely listens to us.
In fact, the nature of prayer is that one of the best things Jesus gives us is a great conversation. That’s what he gave his friends James and John.
Jesus Reminds Them All of the Main Point
As happens in every little community, the other ten found out what James and John had been asking Jesus about.
The ten were bugged. I suppose it was about James and John’s brazen grab for eternal superiority. Or maybe it was just the usual tendency of gossip to bring out the acidic judgmental quality of our hearts.
Anyway, Jesus doesn’t give it the time of day. He reminds all twelve apostles of what he’s emphasized for passage after passage.
To be great in his kingdom is to be a servant of others. The more you serve the greater you are.
And that is something, he points out, he has been modeling for them for a good long while:
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” (Mark 10:45 NRSV)
And it is something, he hints yet again, that is going to be fulfilled in the passion and resurrection he’s been predicting:
For the Son of Man came … to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 NRSV)
And being like Jesus is the main thing, right? Even if we get there slowly, by the Holy Spirit’s gradual transformation and our sometimes grudging participation.
Sometimes it takes till Tuesday to bring out a “Monday Meditation.” That’s partly because I like to spend time with the text. Good things happen slowly.
If you’d like to explore an ancient way of taking Scripture slowly, think about signing up for my Advent course on the classic spiritual practice of Lectio Divina, the prayerful meditative approach to integrating God’s Word.
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