The Sons of Zebedee

Mark 10:35-45

Now it is so that I have a rather muddled relationship with these sons of Zebedee, with James and John.  A whole lot of the time when I encounter them as we do today in all their ‘obvious lack of humility,’ I shake my head at them, for they are so unlike how I like to see myself. And then I have a day like Monday: a day when though I was not asking for the sort of recognition they were seeking in the eyes of Jesus, still at its base, it was there: the desire to be seen as someone who was better than, somehow special, or at least able to ‘keep up.’

This is how it was:

It started before dawn, if you can believe it. I had forced myself out of bed to go to my twice weekly workout — which I too often miss when the night before has been too full of church business of one kind or another. I made it Monday, though, when it turns out most people did not. Only four of us had not silenced our alarms and had heeded the need or the desire to start the week off ‘right.’

To mix things up on Monday, Cathy, our fitness instructor, had us do partner work. Oh, I know I was the oldest one there that morning, but as we threw ourselves into the rotation of exercises she had planned for us, I realized that not only had she paired me with someone less than half my age, (!) I could tell in how she moved her hand in a poetic flourish that she was a dancer. A dancer. Sure enough, when I asked, she said she teaches several classes a week.

Now this would probably have been something I could have forgotten as soon as the hour was done, but this very nice young woman who had been saddled with me, noticed the obvious differences between us. Indeed, several times during our workout she asked if I needed her to slow down. I did not. Really, I didn’t, but I could feel the jab to my pride, to my own sense of who I thought myself to be, as I realized she did not see me as I did. Oh, I have long ago given up the desire to be the best, to be the strongest or fastest. Even so, I am not quite to the point of wanting to be seen as one who ‘does well for her age!’ So yes, even in this small thing, I saw glimmers of James and John in my own wounded pride, in my own lack of humility, indeed, in my inability to not be crabby at someone so much younger than me who was just trying to be kind.

And then there was this…

I got to mid-day without further incident, but then there was a conversation where another relayed to me a wonderful idea that she was attributing to someone else. Only it was not that ‘someone else’s idea,’ it was actually mine! I had shared it first with them and then they, apparently, shared it in turn, because it really was a good idea. Probably he did not claim it as his own, and maybe he did or did not say where he had heard it. No matter, really. In my surprise to hear it attributed to another, I jumped in and said, “That was MY idea…” Which was true. But how unattractive… And in the end, it really wouldn’t matter, of course, as it was just a good idea, and if it’s a good idea, who cares where it comes from? But again, my pride was wounded. And yes, I hear echoes of the sons of  Zebedee wanting to be recognized for all they thought they were.

And finally, this…

My day ended on Monday with a funeral. More and more, it seems, I am the ‘go to pastor’ for one of our local funeral homes when a family comes in with no church connection, but they still want a pastor for a funeral. It turns out in this case that I had actually met the family  the day before when the social worker at the hospital flagged me down on my way to visit someone else. I did stop in with them. I learned their names and witnessed their deep love for their wife and mother. I offered a prayer for peace for her and for all of them. A day later the funeral director called.

I sat down with Millie’s widower and her daughter a few days later. We visited a while about what mattered to her, what her life looked like, about the places she had called home, about where she had worked, about who she had loved. Even so, it is hard to really get to know much about someone in such a short amount of time. I offered then to allow others to speak so as to make the service more personal, more meaningful to them, but they declined. On Monday just before the funeral, I checked again to see if anyone else wanted to share, and again they said ‘no.’

So I moved ahead, offering the prayers, reading the chosen scripture, pausing while the musician played ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and ‘In the Garden.’ I offered a brief homily, prayed some more and ended with the commendation. It took all of fifteen minutes, which never feels like enough, but it was all I had.

I stepped out into the entryway and stood next to the funeral director as the people filed past. Pretty soon, one older woman made a bee line for me and began to question me. It seemed she had wanted to speak. I apologized saying this was what the family wanted. “But,” she said, “I have known her her whole life. You only knew her for a little while. I had things I wanted to say.” I tried to assure her that I understood that. That she was right, I did not know her as she did, but this was what the family wanted. She point blank asked me if ‘he’ (presumably the widower) said this. And I said yes. “Well,” she said, “I have NEVER in my life been to a funeral where people were not invited to speak.” I would guess this was not true, and it is probably just as well that she did not give me a chance to respond for at that point she walked away in a huff to join another group of mourners, clearly airing her grievance with them.

There were a lot of things I could have said, but had the good sense to keep to myself. I mean, I well could have said that she was right, I did not know the deceased at all. I was only in this position out of my own sense of obligation or kindness to those who are suffering. Thankfully, I did not though.

And yet, I did not sleep so well Monday night. For you see, I do take a certain amount of pride in knowing I do my best to meet the needs of families at times like these. I thought perhaps I had missed something. I could not help but wonder if perhaps I had misunderstood what they wanted.

On Tuesday morning I picked up the phone to call the daughter of the one who had died. I told her I had received a complaint from one who attended the memorial service and I apologized to her, telling her I was hoping I had not misunderstood what they wanted. “Oh,” she said. “We went back and forth about letting so-and-so speak. We decided against it.”

Of course, by then I felt vindicated. Back on top of my own understanding of myself as someone who does these things particularly well. Back with James and John vying for their places of recognition and honor at the right and left hands of Jesus.

Indeed, all it took was one 24 hour stretch to recognize that although I am not normally so blatant as they, I also often find myself yearning for exactly that which the sons of Zebedee ask for today. Even if I don’t say it out loud. Even though much of the time I think I do hide it pretty well.

And so with James and John and all the rest, I stand humbled now, knowing that I need the reminder again and again on this journey we are called to take, day by day, that the posture we are called to is one of servant-hood. All day every day. And with that it makes no difference who is better than another.

Oh, I have been at this a long time by now and clearly I still don’t really get it. Indeed, with James and John and the rest of the disciples I can only be grateful that Jesus did and does and gives me yet another chance to get in line behind him where I can keep on learning how to be who and what I am called to be: a servant. I can only be grateful that Jesus is not done with me yet.

  • Tell me how you think about James and John. Do you see yourself in their lack of humility or not?
  • Where do you find yourself on this journey of understanding, embracing and emulating the life of servant-hood Jesus models and calls us to? Are some days, some moments, better than others? What makes them so?
  • Perhaps it is simply a human struggle, this one I have with pride. Is it yours as well? Indeed, I find myself a little surprised today that Jesus doesn’t just scold them, scold me, scold us all. Or that Jesus doesn’t just give up on us. Rather, he seems to be willing to keep leading us along. What a wonder that is.


  1. Susan Trimby says:

    This one is a “keeper,”. Pastor Janet. And also so true on my life. Thanks for this post. Susan Trimby

  2. rebecca lou says:

    Yours is the second message I received today about how I should respond to the struggle I have with how I see myself. The first was just about 5 minutes of a movie {Showboat} on TCM this morning. I was preparing to go to church to deliver a message in our pastor’s absence. Just 5 minutes and your comments made me see that no matter what my role is, the important thing is that good is achieved. I’m sure I will struggle with this from time to time. I do like to know that I’m appreciated and that what I do has a positive effect. Thank you, Dr. Hunt. . . .reality in your messages are much appreciated.

  3. Raye Stone says:

    Dear Pastor Janet,
    Yes, I too struggle with pride and wanting/enjoying getting recognized for what I’ve done! I think it is a human struggle and yes, some days I am better at it than others! I know in my heart that I am doing what I want to do as far as volunteering goes, but yet it feels good to be recognized, complimented, noticed! Yup! I can relate to James and John! I am no better!
    Thank you for getting me to think and to put myself in the story! It does help in understanding it!

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