Mark 10:35-45 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The nurse who works the late shift at the ICU, the mother who takes care of her hungry baby, the couch potato who watches TV and surfs the internet, the CEO who wants to raise profit margins, the employee who works for him – they all have something in common besides their humanity. They’re ambitious. Granted. Not for the same things, but they are all ambitious.
Everybody is ambitious all the time. That much we know. Robin Williams sure was. It’s amazing really. He had troubles with depression, addiction, alcoholism and even a significant heart surgery in 2009, but if you check his résumé there are no gaps. He worked non-stop. People he worked with said he was, “1000% reliable” and, “ready to work… the first one on the set.” In his later years, he even upped his workload. In recent years, he stars in the comedy TV series The Crazy Ones, acted in commercials for Snickers and iPads, and in 2014 alone had four films come out. Everybody is ambitious all the time. That’s not the question.
The question is: what is worth pursuing? Or as Mark so brilliantly notices, the best and clearest question of all is: who is worth pursuing? It’s amazing how Mark sets this up. Three times Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection. Three times in three back-to-back-to-back chapters. And three times in three back-to-back-to-back chapters the disciples somehow manage to also name theirs. Each time it gets more awkward. The second time they squirm when Jesus asks, “What were you guys talking about along the road?” And you can just picture it. Peter elbows John and whispers, “You want to tell him?” “No, do you?” Because they were talking about which of them was the greatest.
The third gets even worse because the contrast gets even more stark. The third time Jesus makes the most specific and graphic – did I say graphic? – prediction of his ambition: Gentile control, mockery, spitting, and flogging – these are the new bits of information that came out about Jesus’ ambition. And instead of the disciples mourning it. And instead of the disciples seeming to take it to heart. And instead of the disciples seeking to comfort and support Jesus in it, they come to Jesus to profit from it – two of them in particular. Mark very pointedly says, “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (v. 35)
Many different thoughts flood to mind when I think about their request. It’s awful that they ever even asked. That much we can be sure of. I think it may be one of the clearest and barest presentations of human ambition that you can find anywhere. They come to God and they basically say to him, “God, we want you to be our genie in the bottle. God we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” There are so many problems with that I don’t even know where to start. For one, God is not a genie. For two, who in the world thinks that anybody in their right mind – let alone Jesus himself – is going to promise you something before you ever even ask for it?
But what makes their bare, clear ambition even worse was when it bubbled up. Right after Jesus talked about his ambition to die in its barest and clearest form. Right when Jesus says, “I’m going to be flogged, spit upon, and killed.” That’s when James and John come up to Jesus and they basically say, “Jesus, we want to profit from it. Give us permission to do so.” You know what that’s like? It’s like walking up to your dad on his death bed and saying, “Hey dad, after you’re gone, can I get you and mom’s bedroom set?” It really is that kind of bold, embarrassing, insensitive, and tragic ambition, but here the disciples took that to a whole new level.
What’s more remarkable than their embarrassing, insensitive, and poorly timed ambition is Jesus’ response to it. Did you catch what he did with it? He asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus completely indulges it. He doesn’t holler at them. He doesn’t rebuke them for their poor judgment. He doesn’t even lament how unfeeling and insensitive they were to him and his needs. Instead of shutting it down, he lets them bring them bring their ambition to its absolute pinnacle by plainly stating it to him.
And so out it came, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (v. 37) Now their secret ambitions were no longer secret. They wanted to cash in. They wanted to profit from Jesus’ ambition to suffer. And they didn’t just want cash in on it in a minor way like, “Jesus, will you please just let me ride your coattails?” They wanted to have positions of prestige and control in his new government. They were saying, “Jesus, I’ll be your right hand man. Or your left. Just give us the highest and best positions whatever they may be.”
Why Jesus allowed them to indulge their ambitions becomes clear by what happens next. Their ambitions came home to roost through tension, awkwardness, and outbursts of great anger. And, yes, there was great anger. That much we know from Mark. The word he used to describe it is used very rarely. It was the big anger Jesus felt when his disciples barred children from him. It was the hot type of anger or indignation the greedy felt when $40,000 of perfume was poured out all in one foul swoop. That’s big anger Mark says happened, “When the ten heard about this…” (v. 41) Personal ambition always leads to suffering.
It sure did for Robin Williams. Back in 2008, Robin Williams tried some new material at a small venue in Seattle. He was coming off a string of totally mediocre reviews and movies. Afterwards a reporter approached him in his small dressing room. And this is the description of that moment, “He appeared deflated, exhausted, spent and, as is often said of famous people when you meet them in real life, smaller than his screen self. We complimented him on the new stuff – he had killed, leaving the room in tears of laughter. ‘Really?’ he asked like a schoolboy hungry for a pat on the head. ‘Did you really like it?’” Robin Williams’ ambitions left him vulnerable, suffering, and in tatters.
And that is just the way of the world or, in Jesus’ words, how the “rulers of the Gentiles,” (v. 41) function. The happy life – so says everyone – is in winning. It’s in being in charge. It’s in taking. It’s in dominance. It’s in telling. It’s in lording it over others as Jesus says. It’s in exercising authority over others with the goal of getting what you want whether that’s wealth or security or affirmation – whatever you’re personally ambitious for. So we strive for beauty. We push for dominance. We work for power. And our friendships become a place not to listen, but to heard. Marriage bedrooms become not a place to give, but to take. And careers turn into a place to profit, rather than an opportunity to deliver service.
What no one will tell you (except Jesus) is where that lands you. It lands you in suffering. The disciples became isolated and angry at each other. One’s thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Another’s worried saying, “Now James and John are going to boss me around.” Robin Williams lives a life of making people laugh, but tragically is unable to gain any last joy from it because he’s constantly worried he’s not as good or as funny as others. Friendships get ruined so that no one is really heard. Marriages stop humming and become frustrated. Workers stunt their company or cause services to be negatively affected. Personal ambition always leads to suffering for ourselves and others.
And that just won’t change for us until the gospel gets a hold of us. That’s what Jesus describes for us here – a life in which the gospel really lives. It’s a life of freedom – true freedom. Freedom from personal ambition and freedom from the suffering it causes. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (v. 43-44) How we come to live in that world and how we arrive to that kind of freedom is what he says next. For us to live in that world we must understand what the center of the world really is. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v. 45)
It’s interesting the terms Jesus uses. He uses the term ransom. The idea is that you take a person held captive and pay the cost demanded by the captor to set the captive free. They’re no longer ruled by their ambitions. They’re freed men and freed women – no longer slaves. How does this happen? Jesus tells us that too. The slaves get served. And specifically they get served by the Son of Man, the King of the world, and Creator of all. Because he knows something. He knows that until we’ve been served we can’t serve. He knows that until good ol’ number one has been taken care of nobody else can sneak in a priority, let alone stand in line for service. So it was his only ambition to serve us. As Jesus said, “It’s my ambition not to be served, but to serve and set free the many.”
The many. That’s a lot. It’s – to point out the completely obvious – the many. It’s hordes. It’s masses. It’s at the very least a massive, massive crowd. And please, please, please don’t misunderstand Jesus. This is not Jesus undermining the completeness of his work or his salvation. This is not him saying, “I served the majority, but missed the minority. I got most everybody, but actually did miss a few.” This is Jesus doing the complete opposite. This is Jesus enjoying the sheer magnitude of what he was about to accomplish by reveling in the numbers. This is Jesus conjuring up in his mind’s eye the many, many, many his salvation would touch.
And more importantly, he’s asking you to do the same. Jesus is saying, “Picture the masses. See the hordes. Conjure up the massive, massive crowd in your minds eye. Revel in the magnitude of the many and in doing so understand you’re somewhere in there.” That’s what he’s saying. He essentially asking us to play Where’s Waldo with the many of the served and saved to find ourselves. Jesus served so many with his life that he must mean you. That he means you when he served up the forgiveness of sins on a silver platter. That he means you when he rolled out the red carpet of eternal life. That he means you when he built the ultimate mansion and monogrammed a doorway for every saved soul. That he means you. That he means to make you one of the most significant, affirmed, secure, and loved persons to ever walk the face of the earth when he served us.
Think of it. Because Jesus was ambitious for us, we’re no longer captives of personal ambition. We’re free to just let it go. Whatever it had to offer us before we now already have in overwhelming amounts. We don’t have to be ambitious for political power or positional prestige or peer recognition when we have it rolling in from Jesus. We don’t have to be ambitious for spousal love or workplace friendship when we have love and friendship coming at us in spades from the friendship and love of Jesus. It’s not even necessary to shoot for the next level of a career. We have all smashed the glass ceiling. We all hold the most powerful and respected position on earth. We are God’s children.
So down with the disappointment, frustration, and anger that is the fruit personal ambition. And in with service. Let’s stop formulating ways to make our career serve us. Let’s just serve in a career. Let’s stop figuring out how to make someone else notice us. Let’s make sure to notice everybody else. You get the picture. That is real life. And it comes from seeing Jesus meet everyone one of our needs by his cross. It comes by believing that we’ve been served in a final and ultimate way – by seeing our face among the many of the served and saved.
It really does work. True story. I was writing this sermon when my wife ran up the stairs and peeked into my office and said, “Hey can you help me real quick?” Normally – well – this time at least I said, “I’m here to serve.” And I did. (She’s been on a picture hanging streak lately.) Two minutes later I bounded back up the stairs to my office to get back to this sermon. As I did I heard her voice call up the stairs after me, “I like this husband.” I felt joy, smiled to myself, and thanked the Jesus who had not only set me free to serve her, but had also given me a conclusion to my sermon. Amen.