Our Gospel reading this morning tells us the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approaching Jesus with a request. They begin, as middle school students might, with a vague preamble. "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." No fool in these matters, Jesus responds in a general way himself. "What is it you want me to do for you?" Then they come out with it: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” I’ve heard and preached on this story innumerable times, and as I hear it again this morning I think that most preachers, even me, have largely missed the point. When we encounter James and John asking for special treatment, our natural tendency is to think of this story as kind of cute. “Isn’t that adorable,” we say to ourselves. “The two Zebedee boys just don’t get it.” We smile inwardly at how quaint their request appears.
Hearing the story today in the light of world events, I can’t help but think that something deeply troubling is going on here. James’s and John’s request to be numbers two and three in the Kingdom of God isn’t cute at all. Their request is actually a grab for power, an attempt to guarantee their own position in the emerging Jesus movement. Their mistake—a common one in all religions—is that they have come to think that holiness has something to do with power.
All religions—Western and otherwise—struggle with this problem. Great buildings like this cathedral stand as monuments to the zenith of Christendom, the period when Christianity was the official religion of Western culture. But Gothic architecture sends us mixed messages. Overtly, it suggests the transcendent nature of the divine. Inside a building like this one, or Salisbury or Chartres or St. John the Divine in New York, I feel small but not insignificant. I have a sense of the scale of myself in relation to the divine. But Gothic buildings are also about the institutional power of the church. They project that power outward and suggest that the church, like the state, is a world historical institution.
Some of you may remember Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a movie about St. Francis of Assisi. At one point in the story, Pope Innocent III summons Francis to Rome, and the two men encounter each other inside the cavernous spaces of the Vatican. Imagine the Pope seated up at our high altar accompanied by a large entourage, all decked out in regal splendor. And then imagine a simple man in robes and sandals walking humbly up the aisle to meet him. The contrast between the two—one the representative of a powerful institution, the other the founder of a movement based on voluntary poverty—could not be more striking. It’s hard to imagine, as the scene unfolds, that these two men might even practice the same religion.
Something like that is going on in the dialogue between Jesus and the sons of Zebedee this morning, though in this incident the roles are reversed. Jesus is more like Francis, James and John are flexing their imperial muscles. They seem to think that the institutional shape of the church will be something like the Roman Empire, and that getting in early on the distribution of power will be the path to heavenly success. Jesus—the one who gathered the movement in the first place and who exemplifies the Christian life as one of humility, compassion, and mutuality, sets them straight. "You know,” he says, “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.” [Mark 10:35-45]
On Jesus’s terms, Christianity will not be about imperial rule. For Jesus, holiness and power are not the same thing. James and John have misread the situation. The may have been the first, but they weren’t the last Christians to do so. For most of our history, we Christians have struggled to get the balance right. And we are not alone. The same can be said about other religious traditions. When we encounter the holy, something in us wants to make our experience mandatory for everybody else. We think that being faithful to our knowledge of God means imposing it—sometimes through force--on others. It’s a short step from James and John to the Crusades.
Power and holiness are on my mind this morning because, for the past couple of weeks I have followed the events surrounding Malala Yousafzai, the courageous 14-year old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban because of her opposition to their ban on education for women in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan,. Since she was 11, Malala has written an anonymous blog for the BBC, “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl”, in which she described the effects of the ongoing war in the Swat Valley and her sadness at the closing of girls’ schools. She has been interviewed several times on television in Pakistan and has expressed her desire eventually to go to medical school and become a doctor. In reprisal for her vocal advocacy of women’s education in Pakistan, Malala was shot on her way home from school in Mingora. In taking credit for the shooting, a Taliban spokesman called her crusade for women’s education “an obscenity.” The same spokesman said, “Let this be a lesson.” [“Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights”, The New York Times, October 9, 2012]
As we think about Malala’s shooting as an expression of religiously-motivated violence, notice the way the Taliban spokesman makes an almost unthinking connection between religion and coercive power. Let this be a lesson? A lesson in what? The Taliban spokesman talks as if the shooting of a teenager were a “teachable moment” in religious education. From his point of view, deviation from orthodoxy merits a violent response. In this respect, the spokesman is the direct descendant of James and John when they ask to be seated one at Jesus’s right hand and one at his left in glory. Their request for status has an ugly underside. They have equated God with power, and they have volunteered to be God’s agents in wielding that power. When faithful people try to exert coercive force—be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu—they are making a fundamental mistake not only about themselves but about God.
One of my favorite contemporary theologians is a Roman Catholic, John Caputo. In his book The Weakness of God, he challenges us to think of God not as ultimate power but as ultimate weakness. He invites us to consider, in his words
. . . the possibility of a kingdom of the kingdom-less, a kingdom where there is no sovereign and no one reigns--or if they do, they have no power--an un-kingly, anarchic kingdom, a kingdom where the only power that is permitted is the power of powerlessness, where the very condition of power is that it be without power. [John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, p. 26]
If we learn anything from the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, it is that the One Jesus calls his Father does not dwell in imperial splendor. Instead, that One became one of us in Jesus, and went to the cross as a victim of the kind of coercive violence that we deplore in the fundamentalist terrorism directed against Malala Yousafzai and all those who simply believe differently than those with power think they are supposed to.
James and John didn’t get it. They thought that following Jesus would bring them power in his kingdom. But the kingdom they imagined is not the one that Jesus offers. The kingdom Jesus invites us all into is organized not like the Roman Empire but like a meal. It’s a community gathered around a table, a place where 14 year-old aspiring women doctors and all those without imperial status—the sick, the lonely, the bereaved, the oppressed—feed each other and are fed by God. When we finally see things as God sees them, we’ll know that it is people like Malala and St. Francis who will sit at Jesus’s right hand in glory. As Malala recovers, let us stand with her in that weakness, even as it grows increasingly into strength. In standing with Malala, we will stand with Jesus, too. Amen.