There was a pastor who died and went to heaven. The angels welcomed him and directed him to his home in heaven. It was a tiny little hut. He was totally surprised seeing so many mansions around him and yet he got this tiny little hut after serving a life time as a pastor. He wondered who were those spiritual giants. Pointing to a huge mansion next door, he asked the angel “Whose mansion is it?” The angel said, “Oh, that’s Mrs. Jones’ mansion. Mrs. Jones from your church. She just came a few months ago, remember?”
“Mrs. Jones from my church? How could that be? Are you talking about the old deaf lady that came to church early to sweep the floor and clean the sanctuary, and then when the service began she set in the back pew and slept through the service every week?” the pastor interjected.
“Yes, that’s her,” the angel knotted, “but she was not sleeping, she was praying for you so that you would be able to preach well, and that people would be touched by God’s Word through your message. Without her, your sermons would have never been effective.”
End of the story.
We know that the point of the story is to remind us that God does not treat people by their ranks and positions. I am sure many people join the ministry to become leaders, pastors, elders, or deacons hoping one day they will be rewarded greatly in heaven. However, this story asserts that God doesn’t work this way. You won’t be rewarded based on the position you hold but by the sincerity of your servanthood.
Jesus said that it’s the behaviors of the Gentiles to covet the superior ranks and roles. In today’s language, the word “gentiles” would be replaced by “the people of the secular society. Those out there.” We, the followers of Jesus, don’t behave that way. So, let us search our hearts now and then to see if we have ulterior motives in serving in the church, or in the secular world.
In Mark 10:35–45, we read the story of Jesus favorite disciples, James and John, approaching Jesus to demand a favor. They didn’t ask, but they demanded, based on the tone of their language.
Mark 10:35 NRSV
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.”
Maybe they felt entitled to this favor from Jesus since they were part of his inner circle. Jesus liked to take Peter, James, and John to important events, so they must feel they were his favorites. Just recently, Jesus took them to the Mount of Transfiguration to give them a special opportunity to peek into the kingdom of heaven. So, they felt privileged, and maybe this would be the right time for them to ask Jesus to fulfill their dreams of life. They revealed their ulterior motive.
Mark 10:36–37 NRSV
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.”
James and John, the two brothers, wanted the top two positions in the kingdom of God. After almost three years following Jesus, they now revealed their ulterior motive for becoming disciples. In the secular world that would be perfectly appropriate. They had been the top students, and they felt they deserved the top positions in the kingdom.
Would you think the same? If you are in their shoes, would you say, “I study hard, I work hard, I deserve the outcome of my hard work.” In fact, previously they said to Jesus, “We have given up everything to follow you.” They have sacrificed hard.
Mark 10:38 NRSV
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?”
“The cup” and “the baptism” here sound enigmatic. However, based on the context, Jesus is talking about his upcoming painful death and shameful persecution that he would have to go through. He is asking, “So, you want the positions on my right hand and left, but can you handle the crucibles that I have to endure?”
They replied, “We are able.” These two brothers were brave. They were willing to go to the ultimate level of sacrifice for their rewards. Just a paragraph before this passage, Jesus was talking about his coming death and resurrection, so we can assume that they knew what Jesus meant by the question, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” James and John’s answer was, “If you die, we will die with you. We will do everything for you to deserve the top positions in your kingdom. Maybe they do love Jesus that much.
Mark 10:39–40 NRSV
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.”
That means they are predestined to go through the suffering similar to that of Jesus—they will drink the cup and endure the baptism. History shows that James was executed by King Herod around 44 C.E. (Acts 12), and John was exiled during the reign of Domitian around 81 C.E. They did drink the cup and endured the suffering.
However, to their disappointment, Jesus said,
Mark 10:40 NRSV
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.”
Yikes! They were predestined to suffer, yet Jesus wasn’t sure they were predestined to take those high positions.
Do you still want to be a Christian or Christian leader? You get to do all the hard work, but you are not guaranteed the reward? Maybe you should consider changing religion. There are other religions that guaranteed rewards based on your sacrifice. Some religion guarantees that you will get 72 virgins as your reward for your sacrifice. Others believe in karma—what goes around comes around, meaning your hard work will be rewarded in the next life.
However, for someone like me who has served as God’ servant and pastor of God’s church for over two decades, I will only get a tiny hut! Maybe I am in a wrong religion too! (Smile!) However, Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. Religion is about rules and rituals, but relationship is about love and grace. Religion is summarized by the word “Do”—do this, do that, and you will be rewarded. Christianity is summarized by the word “Done”—Jesus has done on behalf of you what you have failed to do.
The enlightenment of this passage is in this clause. Jesus said that the position is “for those for whom it has been prepared.” (v.40b). What it means is those positions are already filled from the foundation of the world. It is not hard for the Presbyterians to understand because it’s within the theology of predestination.
If you studied the Taoist philosophy, it could also help to interpret this concept. Each of us is given a position on earth. It is your lot. You may be a janitor or a general, a parent or a president. It’s not how high we climb on the corporate ladder that matters, it’s all about how well we serve where we are. The gentiles, or secular people, look down on a janitor and look up on a general, but God doesn’t look that way. They are rewarded for their service, not for their seats.
Here’s the secret: “grace.” It’s God’s grace that we are whom we are, and we are where we are. If you understand the grace of your very existence, you will be enlightened and set free from the hunger for power and position because you now realize that you just have to be the best version of you, not someone else or somewhere else.
When the ten other disciples heard about James and John’s request, they were mad because they too were position hungry. If it were first come first served based on who asked first, they would have missed those top positions. Jealousy strikes!
Mark 10:42–44 NRSV
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.
He taught them again God’s principle of leadership. It’s not first come first served, but it’s more likely last come first served. Human beings are not made to handle the power and position they are not predestined to handle. It’s dangerous to covet the ranks and roles, and race to climb the corporate ladder because “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That is human nature. That’s how we are created. We do well only by enjoying where we are and leading from there by serving.
Jesus concluded the teaching by saying,
Mark 10:45 NRSV
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
When Jesus uses “the Son of Man” to talk about himself, he was claiming his divine identity. He was part of the triune God with all the power and authority, and yet he did not come to lord it over people but to serve the entire humanity and give his life a ransom for us. In plain language, this was his destiny and he fulfilled it beautifully and faithfully.
What’s YOUR destiny? Sometimes, the word “destiny” may sound secular. Maybe I should invent a better word and say, “what is your predestiny?” If God made you a parent for this time and place, be a good parent by your servanthood. If you are a president, be a good one by your servanthood. If you are a janitor, be a good one by your servanthood. If you are a general, be a good one by your servanthood.
It’s because your reward is not based on your position but by your service in gratitude to God’s grace that puts you where you are.
You don’t have to hold a top position to be a leader. You are predestined to lead where you are. God does promise that when you are first faithful in a small thing, greater things will be given to you.
For now, let us lead well by serving well where we are.
Until we meet again, be fruitful! Amen!