It’s refreshing that the Scriptures present folks just as they are. We see the characters in the Bible, warts and all. From Joseph’s lying and deceit, to King David’s adultery and murder, to Saul’s murderous campaign against the early Christians – it’s all there. And now, it’s Jesus’ own disciples who are exposed.
It might have been tempting for the gospel writers to cast these disciples in a better light, to put a more positive “spin” on their words and actions, to “photo-shop” their portraits in the gospels by covering up the blemishes. It might have been tempting to re-tell the story in a way that made them seem a little more heroic and a little less human.
But the evangelists resist the temptation and show Jesus’ disciples in all their humanity. They are occasionally heroic, but more often clueless, confused, anxious, fearful, and ambitious – most of the time, they’re not “getting the picture.”
Today’s gospel story is a perfect example:
Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, knowing full well that this journey may be his last. Though it’s unlikely that he knows exactly how his life will end, he is convinced that suffering and death await him there. He will not allow this danger to deter him from what he knows he has to do. The disciples, on the other hand, are anxious and afraid (Mark 10:32). They don’t share Jesus’ clarity of purpose and cannot comprehend why he is determined to march directly into danger. They don’t see the point of it.
They do not yet grasp Jesus’ mission, nor do they understand that his mission is also their mission, his way is also their way. Jesus tells them repeatedly that he is going to suffer and be killed, and that they too will be asked to “take up their cross and follow him.” But they just don’t get it.
So we find James and John, the brothers who were part of Jesus’ inner circle, coming with a request. They want “to sit, one at [Jesus’] right hand and one at [his] left, in [his] glory” (v 36). “You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus tells them. And it’s true. When Jesus asks if they can drink the cup that he is about to drink, they readily agree. We are able! Except the cup they are envisioning is a cup raised in tribute to a victorious Jesus, after he has driven out the hated Roman occupiers. They imagine themselves sitting at Jesus’ side at the victory banquet, sharing in his glory….. But Jesus will be lifted up on a cross, not a throne. His crown will be a crown of thorns, not of gold. And it will not be disciples at his right hand and at his left, but criminals.
For the disciples, all of this is beyond comprehension. They can’t begin to imagine it. Even after Jesus’ three-fold prediction of his suffering and death, (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34)
even after his rebuke of Peter for suggesting he need not suffer, (Mark 8:32-33)
even after he settles the disciples’ argument about who is the greatest, (Mark 9:33-35)
even after Jesus puts before them a little child and tells them to imitate her,(Mark 9:36-37)
even after he speaks of the first being last and the last first, (Mark 9:35)
even after he commands them to take up their crosses and to follow him… (Mark 8:34)
even after all this, the disciples are still fantasizing about coming glory and scheming for positions of privilege. There are layers of irony here – and the gospel writer makes no attempt to obscure them.
And yet, Jesus’ response to his clueless followers is tempered with compassion. He does not rebuke James and John; he does not scold or shame them for their foolishness. He accepts their confident affirmation that they are able to share his cup, even though he recognizes they have no idea what they are promising. He accepts them as they are, and then gently turns them once again in the direction he wants them to go.
‘Let me explain again what God’s reign is all about,’ he seems to say. ‘You see, it’s not greatness in the way people ordinarily think of greatness. In God’s Kingdom, the greatest are servants of all. Their lives are about service, not about popularity, power, achievement or success. In God’s Kingdom, it’s all about laying down your life for others. In the world, the powerful and privileged impose their will on others (“their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them”). “But it is not so among you” (v. 43). In God’s Kingdom, we are all servants.’
He is not asking anything of them (or of us) that he himself is not willing to do. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” he insists, but goes right on to say that this is because he himself “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (v 43-44).
He’s gentle with them, accepting their weakness, understanding their confusion. But he is also clear. This way of service, of laying down one’s life for others, is the way to LIFE, the path to ultimate meaning and fulfillment. It is the way God is calling him to follow; it is also the way God is calling them to follow.
Perhaps he can be so gentle, so compassionate, and yet so unflinchingly honest, because he has known this kind of temptation – the temptation to find an easier way, perhaps; or the temptation to reach for power and privilege and popularity; the temptation to be noticed, appreciated, honored by others. He was, after all, “tempted in every way as we are” (Hebrews 4:15).
And to the disciples’ credit, they set off with him towards Jerusalem – not fully getting the picture, not seeing clearly what lies before them, and filled with anxiety and fear – but they go. They don’t run away from the danger. They accept the risk. They trust what he’s telling them. In the end, they do take up their crosses and follow him. That has to count for something.
Can you see yourself in this story? Are you aware of your own weakness, confusion and sin? Are you at times “clueless,” confused or lost? Do you struggle with temptations and attachments that keep you from following Christ whole-heartedly? Have you ever been tempted to abandon the way of self-emptying and service for a way that seems easier or more productive?
If you can relate, you may find comfort in the vulnerabilities and failures of Jesus’ disciples – and you may find comfort in Jesus’ tenderness towards them, his acceptance of their frailty, and his firm but gentle reminder that the ways of God are not always the ways that seem best to us.
Discipleship is costly. “True discipleship,” writes New Testament scholar Lamar Williamson, Jr., “is characterized by a costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an aging parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs, or any person whose situation elicits neighborly service at personal cost. Jesus came to serve and to give his life. Anyone who contemplates following Jesus without fear and trembling has not understood true discipleship, according to Mark.”
And yet, while discipleship is costly, it is never burdensome because God’s grace accompanies us every step of the way. Grace so filled these disciples that they could remember, without shame, these earlier days of confusion and misunderstanding. They could admit their foolishness and their blindness. Something so wonderful took place when they accepted the risk of following Christ – something so life-giving and life-transforming – that they were able to look back on their weakness and foolishness and recognize how patient God had been with them.
And they did get it in the end! Their written testimony reveals clearly that they did get it. “We know love by this,” writes one early Christian, “that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (I Jn 3:16). They did finally understand that much.
Passages like these, that let us see men and women of God in their confusion and brokenness and sin, can be a great comfort to us. We don’t have to “photo-shop” our own portraits and pretend that we are anything other than what we are: sometimes heroic and sometimes foolish, sometimes committed and sometimes wavering, sometimes faithful and sometimes confused and lost.
God knows us as we are, and gently turns us towards what we shall be.
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