For years, I thought the introduction to their request for Jesus was strange and totally out of place. But then I started looking at the context and now realize it may be simply their inability to process two different messages at the same time. They had heard one thing Jesus said and missed the rest of it. It’s all about context. Jesus confused them more than once, didn’t he? Even with the clearest messages he would have to take them aside and explain it to them. They did not do well with nuance or ambiguity. On the other hand, we have had thousands of years of interpretation and commentary about this passage. They were hearing the words of Jesus for the first time so we should not be too hard on them.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” That sounds ridiculous until we remember they are still thinking about something he said to them earlier. In Matthew, after the Transfiguration and the healing of the epileptic boy, Jesus says to them, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.”
Even though Jesus was talking to them about forgiveness, I can easily imagine they started thinking about what he had said and forgot about the context. We do the same. We take a verse like “All things work together for good” or “I can do all things through Christ” or “I came that you might have an abundant life” and we twist them in ways that make us think God is saying something he isn’t – but that is what we want Him to be saying. We take things out of context and distort them.
In the same way, James and John (and Matthew includes their mother), have heard something but forgotten the context. Paul Simon’s song, “The Boxer” says, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” It’s too often true. In fact, just moments before Jesus had finished telling them what was in store for him in Jerusalem:
”They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Even when his questions to them about their ability and willingness to share his cup and baptism clearly came from what he had just finished telling them, they missed it completely. They were deaf to what he was saying. I remember my parents telling me I could stay out as late as I wanted but I was still getting up early for chores. I recalled the first part and conveniently forgot the rest of it. So it was with the disciples.
But again, it’s not as if Jesus had not talked with them about sitting on thrones. In Luke 22:28-30 Jesus says to them, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
In Matthew 19:28, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
They completely missed that part, didn’t they? They were still thinking about the kingdom and the thrones. Like all of us, they heard the part they wanted to hear and disregarded the rest. They heard thrones but not tribulation. They heard privilege but not persecution.
I like the way Luke puts it. “The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.” They were not intentionally misreading what he had said about thrones or even maliciously avoiding what he was saying about what was coming. It was simply hidden from them. They could not hear it. What they wanted to hear drowned out what he had said.
This week I was at a conference in Dallas called EarthX. The purpose is to bring together thousands of people around the world who are concerned about the environment and how to organize for change. While I was not the typical participant, I was fascinated by some of what I heard. One of the presentations was on the increasing noise pollution in the oceans due to commercial shipping, the use of sonar, and seismic testing. In fact, the changes are so drastic that the noise caused by ships alone is changing the environment that whales and other sea creatures need to survive.
“90% of globally traded goods are transported by ships which are generating an ever-present and constantly rising acoustic “fog” that masks natural sounds. Ships tend to produce low-frequency sound between 10 Hz and 1 kHz that can spread over huge distances and is the most common source of ocean noise. Those low frequency noises are the same as the whales use to communicate with each other over long distances. Such “quiet noise” from the bursting air bubbles called cavitation around the propellers of ships may not kill the animals directly, but can disrupt their ability to find food, mates or avoid predators. Animals depending on hearing others are confused, vulnerable to predators, and disoriented.”
I’ve thought about how the world around us creates the same kind of noise that hides meaning from us. We hear but we do not hear. We see but we do not see. In the same way that the noise of a ship can muffle the hearing of a whale by being on the same frequency, the world around us does not always shout loudly to be obvious. It does not whistle to get our attention. It appeals to us at our same frequency and masks the voice of God and others closest to us.
The root for our word “obedience” is the Latin “audire” – to hear. Obedience is simply the process of developing an ear for God.
You and I are surrounded in the world by what we could call “white noise” or “white sound”. If you have trouble sleeping you can buy a machine that produces it. It works because it generates 20,000 frequencies of sound that effectively mask any particular sound. It works by adding multiple sounds at the same level instead of trying to overpower another sound or to eliminate the sound. It simply makes it one of many and your ear loses its ability to pick it out from all the others. It doesn’t go away. It is simply one of many and the effect is, hopefully, sleep.
We use white noise for sleep and so does Satan. He lulls us into spiritual sleep with it.
Sin does not often shout. It does not try to be the only sound we hear. We would react to that.
It simply increases the number of voices so we can no longer discern God’s. Satan does not want to eliminate God’s voice. We might notice not hearing it and be startled into looking for it. No, he simply makes it one of many and masks it. Satan is not shrill.
We live with “white noise” today in the form of constant lies and half-truths. Journalist Laurie Penney writes: “False news sells because false news is what people want to be true. Twisted news generates clicks because people click on things they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.”
We live with a constant barrage of lies from all sides and it has an effect, doesn’t it? I read this from Hannah Arendt:
”If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
And when we can no longer hear and no longer communicate with each other we lose our way. We don’t know where we are. Whales beach themselves when they are completely disoriented. We do the same.
It’s not an uncommon desire to be special and enjoy a particular kind of recognition not enjoyed by others. Who was it that went up to the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus? James, John, and Peter. Three of them but already they are cutting out Peter and, of course, it would not have been long before John and James would have been arguing with each other about who was closest to Jesus. They wanted more than thrones like the rest. They wanted thrones in the roped off area. They wanted thrones that would be visible above the rest of the thrones. After all, if no one sees you in the VIP section, what’s the use of being there? We all want to be special – even at the expense of others. We may not be as blatant about it as those Jesus rebukes in Mark 12;38, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplace, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the place of honor at the banquets.”
But we all want one way or another to be in the inner circle or be known as having a unique relationship with a powerful person. Who among us has not enjoyed the experience of sitting in the reserved seats or being singled out in some way? It’s normal and it goes against the grain when Jesus says, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. 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 constant messages from the “quiet noise” makers of the world tell us just the opposite. Don’t settle for serving. Don’t be invisible. Don’t be last. We all know what special education means today. It is education for people we consider to have special needs. Maybe what we all need is education for those of us who like to consider ourselves as special. We need to recognize what a handicap that is in our lives and how the message of Jesus to serve and not be served is the only thing that will prepare us for the throne he has promised. The next life is not a world without thrones. Just the opposite. But it is in this world that we are prepared for what is coming.
Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” ends with this line: “Practice resurrection.” While I have only a little idea of what that means, I can take it to mean we begin now to practice what we will experience in the new life. Jesus said to the faithful servant, “Well done, my good servant! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” This life is a very small matter but the reward for being trustworthy is not laying around for eternity. Instead, the reward is even more responsibility. For what are we being prepared? Not ease but for the responsibility that comes with a throne. A throne is a symbol of responsibility and judgment. The disciples were promised thrones – not hammocks.
I’ve always believed that the previous chapter of my life was only preparation for the next. What came before – pleasant and unpleasant, easy and difficult – has been necessary training for what will be in the next chapter. We are being prepared for something far greater than being special or sitting in the VIP section. We are being prepared for responsibility and an assignment we cannot now imagine. We are being prepared to inherit a throne.