What It Means to Sit at Jesus’ Right and Left

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark opens with one of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. He tells his disciples that they are going to Jerusalem, where “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes,and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death.”

What is the response of John and James? Their concern is securing their places at the head of the class: They approach Jesus and ask to be seated at his right and his left when Jesus comes into his glory.

The other apostles are indignant when they learn of the James and John’s power play (although I’m guessing at least some part of that indignant response has to do with the fact that they didn’t think to ask the question of Jesus themselves). And it is easy for us to make fun of James and John as well, since their blatent push for a front seat seems so embarassing.

Nonetheless, while we may not be as pushy as James and John, we are as much in need of Jesus’ response to them as they were. It is easy to think following Jesus means having a place at the head of the line. Getting to be one of the people in charge. But Jesus makes clear that those who follow him are not like “those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles, who lord it over them, and…make their authority over them felt.” Instead, explains Jesus, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

As he does on so many other occasions, Jesus turns our normal expectations on their head. The objective, in Jesus’ eyes, is not to be served, but to serve. And Jesus models that for us in so many ways. If we look at incidents like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we come to understand that greatness in God’s sight is not found in how many people serve us, but rather in how faithfully we serves others.

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