... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 21 Year B,
Message October 21, 2012

Ambition: Alternative Avenue

Text: Job 38:1-7,34-41; Psalm 104:1-9,25,37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

If last week’s readings were a corrective for any sense of a quid pro quo relationship between God and humanity, this week’s offerings attempt to expound on why just such relationship is not on. Throughout history humans have and still display a sense of egocentricity which tends to put God in the box. God becomes a personal protector, trainer, confidante, lawyer, fixer and all-round servant. Each of us at some time or another has treated God as such. We have said in our hearts, “Oh God please do this for me and I will…” You can fill in the blanks. Out of this mind set it is not hard to see and understand the all too pervasive view that Christianity has promoted a plethora of sects and denominations, steadfastly steeped in a theodocity of retributive justice – God will always reward the right and just and will punish the wrong and faithless. But bad things happen to good people and we become shocked, some even to the point of becoming agnostics or atheists.

The lessons for today attempt to help us get a glimpse that the small understanding we humans have of the global picture is infinitesimal to the scope that God envisions. Job who has complained bitterly as to his fate and who has maintained his innocence despite his friends’ assertions that his sufferings are a result of his unrealized wrongdoings now gets his hearing before God. For some 37 chapters we listen as Job bemoans the fact that God is nowhere to be found. If only he could plead his case he would be found innocent and there would be a reversal of his fortunes. His opportunity is now at hand! However rather than answering any questions God poses questions of Job – questions designed to open Job’s mind and understanding as to the greater picture of creation, the universe and the forces of evil beyond human comprehension. Job who has been wrapped up in self-absorption is brought up short – he has no knowledge of things as they truly are! God in a way mocks Job with, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who set out the parameters of creation? Who laid the cornerstone of the heavens? But such mocking is not mocking for the sake of putting Job down. True, it exposes the comical situation wherein humans tend to imagine themselves as all powerful, but the real purpose of God is to show Job that there is much more to the cosmic picture than he could possibly imagine. God’s purposes and working go way beyond what we could ever dream. In many ways an illustrative example would be how each of us views government. Each has his or her views as to the best course and often we will spout our opinions without the least understanding of the complexity surrounding the issues, side issues or the connectivity of the various branches and deeper implications of any given decision. In fact those in positions of authority often are not able to see or foresee the wider dynamics. And this is only a microcosm of what God is dealing with!

The psalmist on the other hand seems to have understood well his or her position, and the vast chasm which exists between the Creator and creation. The vast expanse of the universe and its complexity which God has created and continues to maintain and simultaneously still be able to have concern for the creatures is far too great a picture for mortals’ fathoming. The only response can be that of simple exultation and thanks. Thus the psalmist begins with “Bless the Lord O my Soul”, and ends with, “Praise the Lord!”

This comparison between the Almighty and humanity is captured in the Hebrews reading as a comparison between the priesthood of Jesus and our calling as followers. Jesus is unique and so far above the rest that it defies reason. Yet the position of leadership is seen to be one of servant hood and ultimate leadership that of ultimate service – giving up of self for the sake of the Good News and in obedience to God.

Taken together the readings now set the context for the Gospel reading in which both James and John, the sons of Zebedee come to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Such boldness seems repugnant to us as we hear it. Yet we all do it – we approach one another and often veil the same request saying, “Can I ask you for a favour?” The words might be somewhat softer but the intention is the same – it is an attempt to trick into granting a request before the substance of the request is known.

The disciples have missed the cosmic proportions in which Jesus is the primary agent, focussing instead on their own desires for preferential treatment. Three times Jesus has predicted his own rejection and death at the hands of the authorities and a vindication by God. Each time the disciples have misunderstood what he has told them, and each time Jesus corrects these misunderstandings with teaching about true discipleship. Today is that third misunderstanding. Knowing Jesus to be the Messiah has entrenched in the minds of the disciples a sense of reward for their having been with Jesus through thick and thin. When Jesus comes into his glory they want their share! This is the quid pro quo, the retributive justice so longed for by Job. And as God put Job in his place by questioning him as to his wisdom and understanding, so too does Jesus put John and James in their place by questioning them of their ability to do what he himself has to do. Can they drink his cup or be baptized with the baptism he has? Of course they reply in the affirmative without fully understanding the allegory or implications of said allegory.

While James and John might well have grasped the physical capability of mission and belonging involved with ministry – they certainly could not have understood the divine mission which was Jesus’ alone. Yet Jesus does tell them clearly that they too would suffer and die for the sake of the Gospel.

Of course not to be out-done the rest of the disciples chide the pair for their audacious request. The truth was probably that they were jealous that each had not been the first to so request the honour and positions of leadership. Again Jesus turns the tables posing the pagan authorities as models of how not to exercise leadership positions. The choice Jesus points out is that between being tyrants or slaves, between domination and service. The criterion for leadership is not effectiveness but faithfulness. The disciples cannot be true leaders until they have incorporated that aspect of faithfulness into their very being.

Job, John and James could well be any or all of us. We have seen the world and indeed the universe only through the eyes of self-serving interests. We often regard ourselves in the best light and desire in our hearts the best spots or positions or the places of recognition. We pretend to comprehend the divine plan but the truth is we are so minute in comparison to God that we can hardly know the smallest part thereof.

Amid all the strife and complexity of the world around, the readings beg us to stop, to look around – to behold and to see God’s handiwork in Creation and in the salvific work of Christ Jesus and bask in awe and wonderment. Then, amid the serenity which comes in such solitude, we will begin to realize our place, our call to be stewards and servants, our relationship both to God and one another and, the proper avenues for our ambitions.