Is Lent About Serving?
Is Lent about serving? That's the question here. Do we have Lent to stir us to better service of God? Many if not most think so. People give up things for Lent thinking there doing it for God. Lenten devotion books end almost every devotion with suggestions for better serving God that very day. What does Jesus say? He says, "What is it you want?" Jesus, on His way to Jerusalem to be betrayed by a friend, arrested by the Church, and mocked, flogged, and crucified by Gentiles, says, "What is it you want?" when the mother of James and John comes asking for a favor.
Yeah, that's what I would say to someone asking a favor from me when I'm facing suffering, humiliation and death. You've gotta be kidding! I bite the heads off my kids when they ask me a question when I'm trying to get a computer game to work. And if I'm burdened by a real problem, watch out. Then I yell at them. I say, "Why don't you do this or that for me so that my load would be a little easier!"
Not Jesus. With the cross biting painfully into His shoulders, He shows Himself to be the magnanimous Lord of all creation that He is. He says as cheerfully as public relations specialist, "What can I do for you today?" Even though He goes to Jerusalem bearing the weight of the sins of the world on His back, He acts like He's got the whole world in His hands.
So Mother Salome, asks, but she asks out of her misunderstanding of the situation. She asks, "Grant that one of these 2 sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom." Jesus replies, "You don't know what you're asking." She sure thought she did, didn't she? She thought Jesus was heading for a kingdom, and He was. She thought Jesus was heading for a place where He would rule, and He was. She thought there would be places of honor on His right and left, and there would be. But she didn't know what she was asking. Jesus was heading for a kingdom that was not of this world. He was heading for a throne which was a piece of wood stuck in the ground to which He would be nailed. And the places of honor on His right and left would be crosses too.
Jesus tries to gently teach mother and sons about His kind of kingdom: one of suffering, crying, bleeding and dying. So He asks the sons, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" The brothers quickly respond, "We can!" What do you suppose James and John thought a few weeks later in Gethsemane? They, with Peter, were only the ones privileged to witness Jesus' suffering there. What do you suppose they thought when they heard Jesus pray, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me"? James and John boldly claim they can drink the cup that Jesus doesn't even want to drink. They pray in effect, "Don't pass us by with that cup Jesus!" Jesus prays, "If it's possible let this cup pass Me by!"
The 2 brothers think they have earned the right to drink from the cup Jesus will drink from. They've sufficiently served God to deserve it. They've sacrificed more or better than others, and so they have a right to ask for the places on Jesus' right and left. They are so ignorant of what's really going on. But see how gently Jesus deals with them. He doesn't say, "You fools! I'm talking about a cup of suffering! I just got done telling you I'm going to Jerusalem to be betrayed, arrested, and crucified and you expect places of worldly honor?" No, Jesus says, "You will indeed drink from My cup, but you won't drink the cup given to Me by My Father. That cup is mine alone; it's full of God's wrath against sinners. It's bitter poison and sour death. You won't drink from the cup given to Me. You will, however, drink from My cup which I will give to you."
Surely, on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus took His cup and said, "Drink from it all of you," surely James and John's eyes were opened. Even if their's were not, our's most certainly are. We don't drink from the cup that comes from the hands of the Father, but we do drink from the cup that comes from the hands of the Son. That's a cup of salvation, forgiveness, and life. It's a sweet, delightful, joyous cup.
In the cup of Jesus, there are no distinctions. All the disciples are invited to drink from it. In the cup of Jesus, there is no better or worse, no positions of more or less honor. How can sinners enjoying this cup's forgiveness, life and salvation care about who's on the right or left? Partaking of the cup of Jesus is the grand privilege and honor.
But nobody in the text is in that cup yet. The 10 other disciples are also consumed by a misunderstanding of Jesus' kingdom and places of honor. They too thought they had done more than enough service to warrant special places. Listen closely to what Jesus says to them. Remember all that has gone before and where this is all going. If you don't, you'll think this is where Jesus teaches us how to be great. You'll think Jesus is giving us instructions on how to merit places of honor even though He has just finished telling us that the places of honor are a matter of the Father's grace.
You hear these next verses rightly when you hear them as being about Jesus and not us. The 10 came to Jesus, as the mother and sons had, as if He were some worldly ruler who lorded things over them, who craved groveling servants and fawning sycophants. Such worldly leaders do need to be pacified by bowing and scrapping the way Mother Salome is described coming to Jesus: down on one knee, not daring to look up, and saying, "If possible, please, could you do a favor for me?" Friends, this is how my kids need to come to their sinful father sometimes, but this not how sinners at any time need to come to Jesus.
The disciples don't know this yet. If the insert had the right translation, you might see that. Jesus doesn't say, "Not so with you," present tense, but, "It shall not be so with you," future tense. Right now they are caught up in a worldly misunderstanding of Jesus as a king who rules over them demanding service. But it will not always be so. One day they will see that He who wished to be great among them was the One who served them. He who wished to be first among them, became their slave.
Ah, you hesitate here, don't you? You know I'm speaking of Jesus. He is the greatest and yet served. He is the first yet became a "slave." But you've always heard this as being about you. You've always heard this as instructions for how to be great and first in the Church. And since this is the modern conception of Lent, this text shows up now. But what you don't know is that this has been a Lenten text only since the late 1800s. What you don't realize is that when you make this text about your serving, you miss Jesus on the way to suffer and die to serve you.
Think for a moment how this text has to be tortured to make it about you serving rather than Jesus serving. Jesus has just finished telling them how He would suffer and serve them in Jerusalem, and then He corrects their misunderstanding of greatness and firstness in His kingdom. They are not matters of serving and deserving but of His Father's grace. Now at the end of this text Jesus doesn't reverse Himself and tell them how to merit or achieve greatness by serving. No, Jesus tells them something much more radical. That His kingdom is not a matter of you serving the King but of the King serving you. It's not a matter of you suffering for the King, but the King suffering for you. It's not a matter of you paying taxes your whole life to the King, but the King giving His life as a ransom for you.
What I'm telling you is that you've been hearing the last verse of our text all wrong. It does not say, "The Son of Man came to be served." It does not say, "The Son of Man came to be served some of the time." It says, "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve." He is totally unlike worldly rulers who lord their authority over people and oppress them. His greatness comes not from being served by others but from His service to others. Not from being first, but from being last, the lowliest of all.
You know what this means? It means we can be like the blind men in the last verses of our text. When they hear Jesus is passing, they have the audacity to interrupt Him. "You must have mercy on us," they shout. Others who don't understand the kind of king, Jesus is tell them to shut up. But that only causes them to screech louder because they know Jesus is not the kind of father I am. He doesn't mind being bothered. They think of Jesus as Jesus wants to be thought of, as coming through their town just to serve them!
When the blind men are bought to Jesus, what does He say to them? "What do you wish I should do for you?" Jesus speaks as if He came to serve them, as if His chief joy in life was doing something for poor miserable sinners, as if He would give His very body and soul, flesh and blood to save these fallen people!
Would such a king as this load us down with things to do to please Him? Would such a Savior as this want us wondering or worrying about our place in His kingdom...like so many of you do? Would such a Father in Christ want us to tiptoe into His office and fawn and grovel? No, He would want us as Hebrew says, to come boldly to His throne of grace. He would want our lives to match the words we've sung all our lives in "I know that My Redeemer Lives." We sing, "He lives to grant me rich supply,/ He lives to guide me with His eye,/ He lives to comfort me when faint./ He lives to hear my soul's complaint." In short, Jesus lives even now not to be served but to serve. In fact, in just a few moments, He'll again be your Server at this Table He has set for you. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (3-6-05); Matthew 20: 17-34