There was a preacher who was spending some time away when he saw on the news that there was some flooding back home. He quickly called home to ask his wife how all of his sermons were, which he kept in file boxes in the basement. “Are they damaged by water?” To which his wife replied, “No, dear, they’re just as dry as ever.” Some questions demand certain answers, don’t they?
What were the Sons of Zebedee, called the Sons of Thunder by Jesus, James and John, thinking when they made that request to Jesus? What was going on in their minds? What was the thought process? I think they were thinking that they deserved to be elevated above the other ten disciples, raised above their peers.
They were each pretty sure in their own minds, and because they were close (as brothers) they had shared their thoughts with one another – and they agreed with each other. So together they approached Jesus and put in their joint request. The two seats of honour when He came into His glory, the two seats of his next-in-command in His Kingdom. Now Jesus didn’t grant this to them (notice how they approach the subject, asking Him to approve what they ask before they actually name it!), He instead reserves the Father’s right of appointment for Him. But when the other disciples hear what James and John had asked Jesus, they become indignant. Why were they so upset, when the request wasn’t granted?
The source of the conflict is this: they all felt the same way, but hadn’t vocalized it. Each of the disciples felt that he was the one who deserved to be elevated above the rest; each of them imagined that he was the closest, the most deserving, the elite. James and John had broken the unwritten code, and vocalized what each of them felt. And they were jealous, and put out that James and John didn’t recognize that they were less deserving. George Bernard Shaw, Nobel prize winner, was once asked if he were able to live in any age in human history, which would he choose. His answer was that he’s choose the age of Napoleon, because at least then only one man thought he was Napoleon. That’s sort of the problem Jesus’ disciples are having. They all think they’re the greatest, so they clash with the others who similarly think that they’re the greatest.
This kind of thinking has a way of creeping in, doesn’t it? We’re all susceptible to it. It’s a weakness that we all have – it goes with being human. We all tend to think that we’re the biggest thing going. It’s called pride – which isn’t just thinking great things about ourselves (though it certainly includes this!), but is also thinking a great amount about ourselves (spending lots of time doing so!). So when all of the disciples are arguing with each other, and feeling bitter toward each other for being so similar in their prideful ambition, Jesus decides to talk to them about the kind of attitude that they should have. He speaks to them of humbly serving others.
He gets at the root of serving others: if we do so in order to look good, or so that we’ll get the first place, then we’re still serving ourselves. Our example for that is Him: Jesus; who gave Himself for us. There isn’t a benefit for Him, from His having served us: the benefit is ours. You may or may not be familiar with many of Dickens’ works, but Oliver Twist is probably one of his most famous, and it displays a principle that runs through many of his novels: people who are down-and-out need a wealthy benefactor to take an interest in them if their situation is going to change. That’s what Jesus does for us; that’s what Jesus’ giving His life as a ransom for many is to us. He is our heavenly benefactor, without whom we have no power to change our situation in life – because the problem is in us, we need to be saved from ourselves: saved from the tyranny of our own egos; saved from the boasting of our own prideful rebellion.
You know the old saying that pride comes before the fall: this is why pride is said to be the root of all sin. It is only in pride that we can think that we know better than God. It is only in proud arrogance that we can choose our way over His. But the opposite, humility, is said to be the root of all virtue: when we humble ourselves, and make ourselves subject to God’s way for us. This is what Jesus exhorts the disciples to: humble service. Let us pray for the humility to serve.