Mark 10:35-45 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.”
James and John do not petition an irrational request. Yet, in his mighty power and wisdom, Jesus cannot promise the glory of heaven and honored seats to his followers. Jesus puts them in their place with the “typical” gospel language of first will be last and last will be first. Makes sense right? Jesus is all about reversing the order of things and promoting a new reality for the kingdom of God. So why don’t I buy into it?
We live in a society of achievement. Children are taught from young age to work hard in school, make good grades in hopes of obtaining a substantial job. Our society idolizes the successful, the rich and the powerful. Work hard and be inventive like Steve Jobs. Write hilarious comedy sketches and make an impact on women in the comedy on Tina Fey. Borrow money from your parents to sell couture shoes on Ebay for a profit and become a reality TV star like Kim Kardashian. Our society values the intelligent, the hard working, the successful and the profitable. Value is found in your ability to contribute.
But what if you can’t contribute? What if your contribution doesn’t fit the mold of “success” in present society? What if one’s only contribution is a life of mental disability or emotional angst?
I’ve been watching documentaries recently. While my husband passed through the room on multiple occasions he sat for periods of time to watch “Autism: the Musical” with me. We were entranced by the documentary which follows five young children, each severely autistic, as they attempt to integrate in society, in family life and ultimately find self-worth by putting on a musical. Parents comment throughout the interviews on the difficult of raising an autistic child. Without the emotional or “normal” social behaviors to associate with others, many of the children in the musical find themselves bullied, left out or a frustration to others. At one point, a mother cries out, “No one values my child.” According to her mother, Lexi, the fourteen year-old girl with braces, a beautiful singing voice and the inability to communicate her own feelings (she can only mimic questions posed to her) is not valued by society because she does not possess the ability to contribute to the advancement of society. Lexi’s limitation based on a neurological disorder prevent her from the glories of becoming a surgeon, or a high power executive or even learning to drive. She can reach the “great achievement” for which so many strive.
Jesus corrects James and John. The story and life of Jesus is not about recognition or fame. It is not about greatness or glory at God’s right hand. Instead, Jesus corrects them to say the last will the first and the first last. Those you perceive with little to no value, those with the inability to “contribute,” “advance,” or “succeed,” those are the first in the kingdom of God. Life is not about greatness of the individual but the greatness of finding value in all God’s people.