Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."
"What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.
They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."
"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"
"We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
A teacher once say that, "If you just want to impart information to your students, that's easy. But if you want to change their lives through that information, that's very, very difficult. Most great teachers want their students to do more than think differently; they want them to live differently." That really increases the challenge for any teacher, doesn't it? On Sunday morning, in church, listening to a sermon, if all we expect is that you receive some new information about Jesus, then listening to sermons would be easy. However, if the goal of preaching is following Jesus, then no wonder so many sermons fail. What Jesus is teaching his followers, over and over again, is that he will not be the Messiah they were expecting; he will not be the one who comes in and sets everything right, defeats evil and injustice on our terms, and ends in glory. No, Jesus will be betrayed, rejected, killed, and rise again. Jesus' identity as that suffering Messiah will be crucial for their identity as his disciples. That is what he is teaching them. And none of them get it.
To be fair, what Jesus is attempting to teach them is a very difficult lesson to learn. They have been expecting a triumphant, all-powerful Messiah. What they get in Jesus is a suffering servant. They have signed on with Jesus for glory; Jesus talks to them of the way of the cross. It is hard for them to understand. Jesus keeps working with them, telling different stories, using various illustrations, but still they don't get it.
Or do they? Maybe the disciples' problem is our problem. It's not that they don't understand what Jesus is telling them; it's that they don't like what Jesus is telling them.
"The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). And as for us, "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mk 10:43-44).
No wonder they do not understand what he is saying. No wonder they are afraid to ask him what he means by all this they know all too well what he means. It is bad enough that Jesus says that he is headed to a cross. Yet, now he tells them that they must take up their crosses, as well.
As Mark Twain once said, "It's not what I don't understand in the Bible that bothers me; it's what I understand all too well."
There is among some Christians today something that has been termed the prosperity gospel. Want to be successful, if not rich, at least happy and content? How do you get there? Jesus.
In the prosperity gospel, Jesus is transformed into a technique for getting what we want. Yet, in this teaching in Mark's Gospel, Jesus is attempting to transform his disciples into what he wants.
Sometimes, we come to church expecting that there we will have our faith confirmed. We will be able to listen to the sermon, nod, and say to ourselves, "Yes, that's what I've always thought. That's how I've always seen it." And then we can go home and have lunch.
Yet, today's Gospel reminds us that the gospel of Jesus is considerably more dissonant and demanding than that. Jesus' first disciples don't get it, and lots of us, even those of us on the inner circle, don't get it. But, thank the Lord; the point is not so much to get it, as to be sure that it gets you, to stick with Jesus, and to let him keep talking to you, keep teaching you.
So, let's come to church expecting to meet Jesus and expecting to be surprised, expecting to grow, expecting to be criticized by him and then to grow.