October 20, 2018
In the early 1980’s, when he was at the peak of his fame, Billy Joel had this peculiar custom during some of his concerts. Every once in a while, he would buy out the front row of seats himself and, just before the concert, send his security up to the nosebleed section and escort those kids to the front row. He said, “It’s no hardship for some rich guy to afford front row tickets; but the kids in the very last row, they’re the real fans.” Although his Jewish upbringing would likely prevent him from drawing a line from that to Jesus Christ, we as Christians certainly can, especially in light of the constant refrain we hear in the book of Mark of the last being first, of God honoring most those who are the least, and of the ridiculous demand by two of the disciples in today’s Gospel–that Jesus should give them the best seats in the house, one at Jesus’ left hand and one at Jesus’ right.
I am not claiming that Billy Joel is Jesus Christ, although one could make the convincing argument that the words to his ballad “Just the Way You Are” are a beautiful description of grace; furthermore, it’s hard to argue with his challenge to the church in his song “Only the Good Die Young,” where he claims, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints–the sinners are much more fun.” At any rate, we use his gesture of bringing the last row to the front as an image for today, as the disciples yet again miss the mark and fail to understand how very radically Jesus is upending the world, both now in today’s time and in the coming kingdom.
At first, however, it seems like James and John really do get it, by asking to be promoted from last place to first. “We hear you, Jesus,” they say, “and we want to be promoted from lowly fisherman to royalty. We could stand for some wealth and fame and power. We’ve been last, and now we’d like to be first–just as you have said. In fact, we want the best seats, right next to you.” But they have failed to hear a single word that Jesus has told them…Jesus has just predicted his arrest, torture and death for the third time. It turns out, this first place that they are clamoring for, these seats of honor, are not the trophy seats they think they are. The first place seats of honor they are demanding, it turns out, are not seats on a throne, with a bejewelled crown and servants. No, for Jesus, the best seat in the house–the first place position–means a place on the cross. For Jesus, first place means first servant of all. For Jesus, first place means dying for the sins of the world. For Jesus, first place means taking his place among the sinners, the prostitutes, the sick, the dying, the outcast. For Jesus, the best seat in the house is the one at the feet of his disciples.
Jesus knows the disciples don’t understand and that they haven’t listened, and he pushes them–really? You really think you want my seat? Can you drink from the cup that I drink? Are you prepared to lay down your lives for the sake of the world? And they say, “YES!” And the other ten, picking up on where Jesus is going, punch the two brothers and say, “Shut up, would you? By the way, Jesus, they don’t speak for us…”
Because even Jesus doesn’t always want to drink the cup he’s been given…even Jesus, in his humanity and in his fear in the face of his own unjust yet necessary death, prays to God, “Please take this cup from me–I don’t want it anymore.” And even Jesus, when dying, looks around for the ones who promised they would be with him and cries out in total abandonment. James and John, then, do not know what they are asking. Because, if they had really listened to Jesus, they would know that, when they ask to take a place at Jesus’ right hand and left hand, they are, in fact, be asking to be crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left…because that is the kind of unjust fate that often befalls ones who live a just life. We want to be at your left and at your right, they say; be careful what you ask for, James and John. Just lives often result in unjust punishments. James will discover this when he is executed by the sword, and John will learn this when his execution fails and he is banished forever.
This week, the news has been full of events leading up to the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based journalist who has been missing since October 2, when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get the necessary paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancee, who was waiting for him outside. Khashoggi’s alleged murder has caused outrage around the world, as he is honored as a civil reformer, not a revolutionary, who sought to write the truth about human rights in Saudi Arabia. Details of his alleged gruesome torture and death are still surfacing in the news. Many human rights activists are horrified that such a just man would meet such an unjust death.
But intimidation, detention and murder are not new to those who lead just lives, according to reports and studies published by the Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Such incidents are becoming the “new normal.” This year alone, 27 journalists have been murdered in Brazil, the Central African Republic, India, Mexico, the European Union and the US. Just last month, Saudi human rights activist Ghanem al-Dosari was violently attacked in London. Russian feminist and activist Pyotr Verzilov was poisoned by nerve gas in September, after running onto a field in Moscow during the World Cup Soccer finals in an anti-government protest. In Iran, 8 environmentalists still remain imprisoned without charge after 8 months of torture. Ogulsapar Muradova, a human rights activist and investigative reporter for Radio Free Europe, was tortured and killed while in government custody in Turkmenistan in 2006. While being a “new normal,” this pattern also reaches far back in history, including Martin Luther King, Jr, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a whole host of martyrs.
What we see here is that allying yourself with the social justice that Jesus commands is scary and often comes with great risk. A few years before he was arrested and executed for participating in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the book The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Today, of course, we expand Bonhoeffer’s use of pronouns to include both men and women; he knows firsthand the cost of following Jesus, the cost of taking his place to the left or to the right of Jesus. It means risking everything for the sake of others; it means drinking the cup that is before you; it means becoming servant of all; it means stepping back so others can step forward; it means decreasing yourself so others can increase; it means using whatever power and privilege you have to usher those in the nosebleed section to the front row; it means relinquishing your honor for the sake of someone who only knows dishonor.
Ironically, this means that places of honor look nothing like what James and John are envisioning. These are not seats in a billion dollar estate in Florida. They are not seats on a private jet. They are not seats on a luxury yacht. They are seats in a detention center, in a freedom bus, in a homeless shelter.
The Gospels clearly show us what places of honor look like that James and John are demanding. When Jesus is executed, the one to Jesus’ left and Jesus’ right are crucified as criminals, same as Jesus. Are they thieves? Are they murderers? Or are they political prisoners? Are the social agitators? Have they also challenged the Roman authorities and threatened the pax romana? Who knows what their crimes are and whether they received a fair trial with adequate legal representation? The only thing we know about these two criminals is that one demands that Jesus save them if he’s really the Son of God and the other tells him to shut up, that they are getting what they deserve. Hmm. Their demands and their bickering sounds strangely reminiscent of the disciples….What we learn from this interaction is not so much who these two are, but who Jesus is when he encounters people in dishonored and humiliating places and places of fear and death.
We learn that Jesus does not flee from humanity when humanity is at its worst, when just people are criminalized, we learn that Jesus takes his place between the criminal to the left and the criminal to the right, that Jesus takes his place between you and me, and THAT is his place of honor, as one who knows what it’s like to be afraid of drinking the cup placed before him, who knows what it’s like when today’s lovely psalm fails you, when evil surrounds on all sides, when affliction comes near your dwelling, when angels do not bear you up on their hands and you strike your foot against a stone. Jesus takes his place beside you when the lion attacks and the serpent bites, when you are not upheld or delivered. Jesus takes his place beside you when you call, but there is no answer, when you are in trouble and there is no rescue and no honor. Jesus takes his place beside you when your life is cut short, when your just efforts meet unjust punishment, when you feel abandoned by God. Jesus does not desert in any of this.
On the one hand, Jesus and the criminal on his left and his right, then, have much in common…in that, the end, all three die the same death. And yet, before their death, Jesus does something that sets him apart from all other social activists, human rights advocates, and political reformers–Jesus promises them salvation. Jesus doesn’t condemn them as being any worse than he is; they are, after all, all hanging on the same cross. These criminals, then, are no worse than we ourselves. So whatever they’ve done, whatever guilty verdict they’ve earned, Jesus is not deterred by their crimes or their guilt. Nor is Jesus deterred by your crimes or your guilt, whatever it is. Whatever you may or may not have done in life that has catapulted you to last place, you are not God-forsaken. Jesus takes his place beside you; it is his place of deepest honor.
These places of honor that Jesus calls us into don’t look like places of honor–the soup kitchen, the women’s shelter, the planned pregnancy clinic, places at a rally, in a demonstration, at a protest to cry out when other human beings are being oppressed and harmed and abused. Jesus calls us to the back row, the last place, the nosebleed section, to say to those who have lost hope, “You first.” You first for bread, you first for a place at the table, you first for a drink of cold, clean water. You first in God’s kingdom, then me. This is the miracle of Jesus Christ, the servant-God–who does not call down to humanity from his lofty throne in heaven; rather, he takes his place of honor among the criminalized, a just man who meets an unjust death, a servant-God who walks with all, lives with all, lives for all, dies with all, and dies for all.