The scriptures referred to are Mark 10:35-45.
When I was a child, superhero comics were made for children. There were no gritty versions of Batman, Superman or Green Lantern. In fact, some of the things that happened in the comic books were absurd. There was, for instance, a comically negative version of Superman called Bizarro. He had chalky white skin crisscrossed with cracks; he spoke fractured English and everything he did was the opposite of the way Superman did things. Instead of Superman's heat vision, Bizarro had freeze vision; instead of having X-ray vision that allowed him to see through everything but lead, he could only see through lead. Eventually the comics introduced a Bizarro world where people hung their curtains on the outside of their windows and where they hate beauty and perfection and love ugliness and what is imperfect. More importantly, the Bizarro version of Superman stands for evil rather than good.
Bizarro world is built on the premise that Earth is good, an understandable conceit in the 1950's and 60's when these comics came out. Knowing what we know today of the world, that it is the home of great evil as well as good, then a world where things were done in the opposite way would not necessarily be a worse world. If the homeless were given housing rather than jailed or run off, if the internet were used to encourage people who were different rather than bully them, if countries had huge military-like organizations whose mission was to save and enhance millions lives of others rather than to kill and subjugate other people, if politicians were more interested in actually governing and making people's lives better rather than in exploiting issues merely to score political points and in winning the next election for their side, it might even be a better world.
A lot of what Jesus says about the kingdom of God seems topsy-turvy when compared to the way our world presently operates. In the kingdom of God, the smallest thing can be the most powerful, the merciful are rewarded rather than the ruthless, riches don't get you preferential treatment, your neighbor is a person you never met before, the person obeying God's commandment to love others could be a heretic half-breed, the person who screwed up big but realized it is welcomed with bigger fanfare than the person who always followed the rules, the person who takes chances with what his master gives him is rewarded over the person who played it safe and the person who prepares to die will live while the person who does everything to save his life will lose it. To the powerful in both in Jesus' day and today, God's kingdom sounds like Bizarro world.
And Jesus is at it again in today's gospel. For that matter so are the disciples. Apparently not learning the lesson Jesus tried to give them about being like a child, they are trying to be the number 1 disciple. Seeing that disciple means student, it doesn't sound so bad. Everyone should strive to be the top student. But if Jesus is the Messiah, being his principle disciple is very much like being his prime minister or his right hand man. James and John literally want to sit to the right and to left of Jesus' throne. They seem very sure they can pull this off. And business leaders and career counselors would applaud them for their self-promotion.
There are three problems with this. First, as Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus is of course talking about his death. This is the cup that he later asked his Father to let pass by him when he is in agony in Gethsemane. Ultimately Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but yours be done.” But if it was hard even for Jesus to take, his disciples at this point have no clue of what is in store for them if they accept this.
But, ever the model of eager, up and coming executive material, James and John say, “Yeah. No sweat. We can handle this.” And Jesus concedes that indeed James and John will face martyrdom. In fact, James does achieve a first: he is the first of the Twelve to die for his faith. He is beheaded by Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, as recorded in Acts 12. Of the manner of John's death, we are less sure. He lived a long life, prompting the rumor that he would live until Jesus returned. (John 21:20-23) But he supposedly died around 98 AD, either of old age or at the hand of Jewish opponents. There is a tradition that the Emperor Domitian had him boiled in oil but he was unharmed.
The second problem is that it is not for Jesus to appoint those who will sit by him in the kingdom. Not even martyrdom determined that, for most of the Twelve would also be executed for their faith. Peter was famously crucified upside down, requesting that because he felt unworthy of dying as Christ did. James, the son of Alphaeus, was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple and then stoned. There are various accounts of the deaths of the rest, including Mathias, the replacement for Judas, and they make up a gruesome catalog of the worst ways to die. Besides those who were crucified, the others were either stoned, beheaded, burned, flayed alive, stabbed by a spear or sawn in half. When Jesus said that those who follow him must pick up their cross, he wasn't kidding.
But the third problem with James and John's request was its flawed understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God. They, and apparently the other disciples, thought that it worked like any other kingdom or organization: that you get ahead by promoting yourself as the best candidate for the position. They came off like politicians or job applicants. The name of the game then as now is sell yourself.
The film Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy about a dysfunctional family that comes together when the little sister unexpectedly wins one of those pageants for little girls and must get to the finals, though her winning that is highly unlikely. Along the way her sullen older brother learns that he will never achieve his dream of being a commercial air pilot and his uncle, who is himself recovering from a major setback, tries to encourage him. And as they talk, they realize that much of life is a beauty contest. Attractiveness and popularity and other superficial qualities often determine who “wins” in terms of careers and love and success. Society does not always work as a meritocracy.
There is a lot of truth to that. Movie and TV stars usually look like supermodels but looks don't necessarily go hand in hand with the ability to move an audience. A moment's thought will call to mind actors who are pretty or handsome but who are widely acknowledged not to be able to act. Why don't more music stars look like Mama Cass or Janis Joplin or like opera singers? The quality of your voice has nothing to do with your looks or your weight but you'd never know that from looking at the nominees at the Grammys. When they decided to make a film out of one of the greatest musicals of all time, Man of La Mancha, they did not use the Tony award-winning star Richard Kiley or any of Broadway cast but used Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren and other Hollywood actors not known for their singing voices. Realizing this, they resorted to dubbing the songs using people who were, inexplicably, not even good singers. The result was so bad that the film version is not even mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the musical.
We see the same thing in politics. Studies have shown that people are more likely to vote for candidates that seem like people they would like to have a beer with over candidates whose positions they actually agree with. And our election coverage tends to focus more on the “horse race” aspect of who's ahead and who's behind, rather than the qualifications of the candidates and the soundness of their positions. We are supposed to be electing people who are wise, knowledgeable and good at governing but it really works more like a popularity contest. The same qualities that will get you elected class president will apparently get you elected president of the United States. Oh, and it really helps if you and your friends have tons of money to get your face on TV a lot.
The kingdom of God doesn't work that way. It is not looks or popularity or wealth or connections with powerful people that count with God. And being first in the kingdom doesn't give your privileges over others. In the topsy-turvy way Jesus operates, the person at the top is the one who looks to all the world like they are on the bottom of the heap. The one who wants to be first must be the slave to all. Jesus picks the word “slave” very carefully because they were on the lowest rung of society. They often did the least glamorous, least desirable jobs in society. In God's kingdom, the janitor rates higher than the CEO.
And Jesus isn't excluding himself. He wasn't made Messiah so he could be the proverbial Eastern potentate, with riches and concubines and a beautiful palace. He was a man who worked with his hands, who only owned one good tunic and who, despite loving children, gave up having a family life in order to walk from one end of the country to the other, preaching and healing. Jesus came not to be served but to serve.
And most kings gain or keep their kingdoms by having others to lay their lives on the line, while they give commands from the safety of command headquarters or their council chambers back at the palace. Jesus' kingdom was founded on his blood and his alone. He willingly gave his life after first making sure his captors let his disciples go. Again this is topsy-turvy because without the leader movements tend to fall apart. There have been a lot of would-be messiahs in history but unless you do your research you probably have never heard of them. As N.T. Wright says, those followers of messiahs who were not executed by authorities, either quietly went back to their old lives or went after the next messiah wannabe.
Only Jesus' disciples stayed together and spread his teachings throughout the known world. And historians are at loss to explain this, especially in view of the horrible deaths that awaited them. Unless death had lost all power over them. And how could that happen unless they were absolutely convinced that what they proclaimed was the truth: that Jesus had triumphed over death.
Take death off the table and it is amazing what people can do. A handful of fishermen and tax collectors can go up against an empire armed only with a message. People can stay in plague-ridden areas and nurse the sick and dying. The seemingly powerless can speak unpopular truths to power. Missionaries can bring good news to hostile tribes who have never heard it. Preachers can champion the oppressed and exposed injustice despite those who would silence them by imprisonment or assassination or execution. People can work with the poor in poverty themselves because they know that the riches that last will not be taken from them. They will have no need for earthly honors or popularity or power or position or the other things that are important in this brief life.
Because in the topsy-turvy kingdom of God, death does not have the last word. Jesus, the one who traveled to that undiscovered country and returned, the one who entered the jaws of death and came back out again, turning death inside out, the one whose death broke death and its power, has the last word. And it is “I am the resurrection and the life; Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, shall live.”