The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year B)

“What is it you want me to do for you?”

A sermon by Guest Pastor, Rev. Charles Kamano

Lesson of True Greatness/Success (Mk 10:35-45)

The manager of a business company died. During the funeral wake, an ambitious employee boldly asked the president of the company, “Sir, now that the manager is dead, can I take his place?” He was obviously referring to the position of manager. But then the big boss replied, “Oh, yes, of course. There is no problem with me. But we will have to ask the permission of the funeral director if he will allow you to take the place of the deceased.

In the Gospel today, the Zebedee brothers (James & John) made an audacious/outlandish request. They asked the Lord that they be granted the honor to sit, one at his right and the other at his left (Mk 10:37). It’s reported that when the other disciples heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers – they were also equally ambitious though. Surprisingly, Jesus did not rebuke the two brothers. Instead, He took the occasion to teach His disciples an important lesson on greatness: true success and greatness is not in being ahead but in serving others: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mk 10:43-44).

Ambition is powered by the desire to be successful in life. And who among us does not want to be successful? For some, success is money, material wealth, good marriage, good family, good career, privilege, and so on. For others, it means just being happy. It is part of our human DNA to hope and wish for success. But is success all about wealth and happy life? Or can true success be viewed differently? For worldly people, to succeed means to excel, to be ahead of the pack, to be above one’s competitors. This was probably what James and John had in mind. And Jesus told them, “You do not know what you are asking” (Mk 10:38).

For Jesus, success means to completely surrender to the will of God. Looking at Him on the cross, one may easily think that He is a loser. But in truth, that is the peak of His success. I know plenty of people who aspire to be successful, but very few actually want to be successful. Most politicians, for example, hate to lose elections. They always want to win, to lead, to govern, even though their policies are not worth it. At times their ambitions for success or winning are misguided. The same thing is true with the two Zebedee Brothers in today’s Gospel. They are ambitious for the top spots. They want to be co-CEOs of the new Church. They want the top cabinet posts in Jesus’ administration. They want to give orders, not take them; they like to ask the questions, not answer them.

The Zebedee Brothers don’t realize Jesus’ talk about service as a way of life, of the abundance that comes from being emptied out, of the security that comes from loosening your grasp on things and power and allowing yourself instead to be grasped by God, is not merely a means to an end.

Jesus teaches and serves and lives and dies, and is raised again for this truth: serving others is powerful; it’s true greatness and success. Giving up yourself for another, being emptied out in love is abundant life. But to find your way to these rewards, you must stop asking the question, “What’s in it for me?” There is a French saying: “A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire”. In English (literally) it means: “To conquer without peril, one triumphs without glory.”

Next Sunday is World Mission Sunday, October 24! A task for those who would follow Jesus is to allow Jesus to transform our questions so that we are people who ask not, “What’s in it for me?”, rather “Jesus, what is it you want me to do for you?” When your question is, “What can I do for you?”, when you concentrate mainly on what you can put into church in the way of personal work and prayer and participation, you feel that you receive even more than you give. You find that service can be challenging, but it also brings deep joy. Service can be demanding, but it also brings pleasure and contentment and hope.

In the Eucharist, Jesus comes to us and asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” May Jesus heal and transform us so that we might ask the same of him and be brave enough to listen to the answer. Amen.