eacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
If you’ve ever been asked a question like that, you know it is going to be a doozy. And sure enough, it was. As Jesus suspiciously asked James and John what it was that they wanted him to do, they revealed exactly what had been on their minds. When the other disciples hear James’ and John’s request, they became angry and began bickering among themselves.
Now, if this is starting to sound familiar, it should. After all, it was only a month ago that we heard another story about the disciples arguing among themselves over who was the greatest among them. I can only imagine how Jesus felt as he once again broke up the argument. Sadly, it would not be the last time, either.
Now, we might laugh and scoff and the gall of James’ and John’s request and the absurdity of the disciples’ repeated arguments. After all, who would even think to ask to be placed at Jesus’ right hand and left? And who cares who is the best disciple, it’s not like Jesus was handing out gold stars.
And yet, they keep coming back to the same question, the same theme. As others have pointed out, the only times that the disciples argue in the Gospels is over this one thing. Which of us is the greatest? Who among us will be rewarded for being the best disciple? But the argument hides a very relevant belief right beneath the surface, a belief that was as rampant among the first followers as it is among Jesus’ followers today.
If we are good disciples, then we will be rewarded.
Because, let’s be honest, we expect that we will be rewarded for our faithfulness. And we anticipate that reward in many and varied ways. For many, it is the anticipation of heaven after a lifetime of being faithful Christians. Or, perhaps your focus is more on this life, in which case we hope that our faithfulness will be rewarded with a long and rich life. And we believe that if we only adhere closely to Christian teachings and values, whatever those may be, that we will be rewarded with a blissful and contented family with many children and grandchildren. And we trust the prosperousness and richness of our career will be a reflection of our lives of faith. Indeed, this last one has taken on a life of its own in the teachings of the so-called prosperity gospel, where God wants to reward you—to make you wealthy and rich—if you will only trust in God enough, if you will only plant enough “seeds” for God to transform and grow ten and twentyfold.
I am not making light of this either. We hold these beliefs deeply, though we may not realize it until we feel a sense of betrayal when our faithfulness is met with tragedy and loss rather than richness and reward. It reminds me of an experience that I had many years ago as a hospital chaplain. I was pushing a grandmother in a wheelchair through the labyrinthine hallways of the hospital to see her dead grandchild. As we walked that slow procession, through her silent tears, I heard her crying out to God, “Why would you let this happen Lord? I’ve been faithful, and I’ve always gone to church, why would you let this happen?”
“Grant us [Lord] to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
The disciples’ request is a mirror of the story of Job, which we have also been hearing these last few weeks. For Job was a righteous and upright man, who feared God and kept the Commandments. And for his righteousness, he was rewarded with family, and wealth, and property, and good health. Until the day that he wasn’t.
Because one day, Job’s many blessings in this life began to fall away, piece by piece. He lost his lands and his herds. He lost his children and his family. And at last, he lost his good health and was plagued by sickness and sores. Through it all, Job received dubious council from his friends. Some suggested that he was not as righteous as they had all thought and was being punished for some transgression. Others suggested that perhaps God was not a just God and that Job should rethink his worship of the Lord. But Job maintained his faith that God was just, he stayed secure to the conviction that he was a righteous man, and he held out his belief that if God would only hear his case, then Job would be justified and redeemed.
Where our reading of Job picks up today, after thirty-eight chapters of suffering, misery, and bad theological advice, God finally makes an appearance. From a great whirlwind, the voice of God thunders out, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
When Job finally gets his audience before God, the divine message he receives is clear, though it is not the one Job was expecting. “You do not understand,” God proclaims, “You cannot understand the creation I formed before you yet existed, and you cannot understand me.”
“Do you know the one who determined the measurements of creation? Can you say who laid the cornerstone of the earth while the stars in the sky watched and sang out in joy?” God asks from the whirlwind.
Thousands of years later, Jesus turns to his disciples as he walks ever closer on his way to the cross, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? You do not know what you are asking. You do not understand.”
Because, my friends, we want nothing more than to be able to claim that we understand God. We want to have a handle on how God behaves, to rest secure that God is predictable—that goodness and righteousness will be rewarded, and evilness and injustice will be punished. But the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and we do not understand God. We cannot understand God.
The crises of faith that the disciples would soon face was still in their future; they did not yet know what was to come. When discipleship is met not with reward, but with persecution, and death, and worse, then why are they following Jesus? And indeed, as Jesus was captured in the Garden of Gethsemane, his disciples scattered and ran away, and Jesus was left alone.
One of the fundamental questions raised by Job’s story asks why it is that we worship God. Do we worship God because we believe that God is good? Or do we worship God because God is God? The difference between those two answers is immense.
Likewise, there is a corollary in the deeper question beneath James’ and John’s question to Jesus. Do we follow Christ because we believe that we will be rewarded for our discipleship? Or do we follow Christ because Christ has called us? Both answers lead us to the cross, because all who follow Christ will eventually find themselves standing before the cross. The difference is in what we will do when we find ourselves there.
My friends, I recognize that it is unsettling to be called to worship a God whose ways are not our ways and the knowledge of whom is beyond our ability to comprehend. It was as troubling for Job as it is for us now. And I know that it is difficult to follow Christ without promise of reward and with only the certainty of the cross. It was as hard for the first disciples as it is for Jesus’ disciples today.
But God stands before us, the divine form obscured from our view by the splendor of all creation, and all we can do is worship God, because it is [meet and right so to do | right to give God thanks and praise]. And Christ stands before us, calling us each by name, and we will either follow or we will not.