I want to begin today by acknowledging that our passage is a hard one with which to wrestle. I say this on multiple levels. First, I say this because Jesus pours his heart out to his disciples in verses 17-19 regarding his coming betrayal at the hands of the religious leaders and the violent death that he envisions is ahead. Yet, after his honesty which I suspect was infused with a high degree of apprehension and uneasiness, no one says a word in response. At least according to the text, not a single disciple encourages him, offers support or appears to take seriously what Jesus says.
In fact, what happens next is hard to get one’s mind around and it leads to the second thing that makes this text so difficult. In Matthew, the very next passage after Jesus’ words about his coming death is the request from James and John’s mother that Jesus give them places of authority in his coming kingdom. It is a request that doesn’t sit well either with Jesus or with any of the other disciples.
I don’t know about you, but I find these two moments in the Biblical text very disturbing. They are both so incredibly self centered. Jesus’ pours out his heart to the disciples and no one acknowledges him or responds with any level of compassion.
Then Salome, the mother of James and John, moves right into a power play move for her sons apparently not concerned about what is right for Jesus and his ministry but instead focused on what is best for her two boys.
It is all hard to read but we have to admit it is all very human too. How often do we half listen to others who are pouring out their hearts because we have other things on our minds, our attention is just somewhere else or because we just don’t care? Or, how often do we only look at situations for how we can manipulate them for our own benefit like Salome, James and John?
It reminds me of a story I heard long ago from a colleague in ministry. He was with a group of grown children who had gathered for the impending death of their mother. Thankfully, they had all arrived in time to tell her goodbye and she was still coherent enough to both hear them and to acknowledge their words individually. In many ways it was a holy moment as they went around the room telling their mother goodbye one by one. That is, until one of the daughters spoke up. Rather than telling her mother goodbye, thanking her mom for all she had done, holding her mother’s hand or kissing her on the forehead, her words of farewell were primarily focused on how their mother’s death was going to affect her. In other words, she took the moment and she made it all about herself.
In essence, that is what happens in both of the movements of our text that I have already highlighted. As the disciples ignored Jesus’ heavy honesty with their silence and as Salome and sons manipulated the moment with their power play, in silence and in word, they both took the moment and made it about themselves.
The corrective here comes in Jesus. It comes in two ways. First, according to the text, Jesus seems aware that the behavior of James and John hurt the other ten. As a result, verse 25 says that Jesus’ called “them to his side” which is a way of saying that he acknowledged their hurt. Second, Jesus reminds them that they have been called to a life of service not self service.
Now, let me connect all of this for our title today which is Freedom and Responsibility. These twelve followers of Jesus had found freedom in their relationship with God’s promised Messiah. They had been invited into a way of seeing, experiencing and knowing both God and life that was so much better than they had ever known before. They had been liberated from both an old understanding of God and an old understanding of the world. Yet, this liberating freedom was not simply for their own personal benefit. They were not to use it however they liked. Instead it came with a profound responsibility. They were being asked by God to use their freedom to freely serve God and to freely make life better for others.
This is one of the magnificent realities of the Christian faith when it is lived out in a healthy way. When we truly live into our baptism, we freely choose to have a responsibility to God and to one another. The liberating work of God in our lives compels us to choose of our own accord to be bound to God and one another.
Let me say this another way. Our world grants us the freedom to only care about ourselves and to pursue our own happiness. There is no law that demands that we listen to others, that we tend to their hurts or that we take their burdens upon ourselves. These are not the demands of our world they are the responsibilities of our faith. And so, part of the challenge of this life of faith is about developing the ability to live into the responsibilities that God places on us in light of the freedom that the world continuously offers to us. This is one of the places at which our life of discipleship truly has a chance to develop depth.
I like the story about the major company who had just hired a new CEO. On one of his first days with the company, the new boss was walking through the main office. It was a great time to do this because most folks had not yet met him, didn’t recognize him and thus were not tempted to be anything but themselves.
As he walked and observed his new employees, he was struck by an individual who was sitting with his feet propped up on a desk while at the very same time the phone on that desk was ringing off the hook. When the new CEO asked the man why he was not answering the phone, he replied, “simple, I work in maintenance. It is not my responsibility.” To which the CEO replied with these words, “you used to work in maintenance”.
This is so often you and I. We don’t think it is our job and so we feel no responsibility to the people in our lives who call out for someone to hear them, acknowledge them and listen. To borrow from my story from a moment ago, we certainly have the freedom to keep letting the phone ring. But, the question is will we be led by the responsibilities of our faith that always reign supreme over the freedom of our world? Amen.