Once upon a time, I attended my first church business meeting.  I immediately learned that church business meetings can bring out the “Zebedee factor” in all of us.  The younger generation wanted a worship service with more upbeat music and a projector screen.  A lifelong member, baby-boomer, and money giver interrupted 4 times to assure them that she was a “Greeneville girl” and had been so all her life.  She knew what would work and what would not; after all she had an impressive resume.  That is what I call the “Zebedee factor”. 

In Mark 10:35-45 we become a fly on the wall to a conversation James and John Zebedee initiate with Jesus.  The Zebedee factor is in full force as the brothers request elevated places in the coming kingdom.  Perhaps they were still reveling in the glory of the transfiguration.  This moment was a great trophy on their mantel.  After all, they were 2 parts of the chosen inner circle.  On top of that, they brought a great deal of business experience to the table (a much needed skill when bringing in a new kingdom).  The brothers had been the second generation of a successful business in the fishery industry.  They knew they were perfect for the job.

In every parish there is a James and John Zebedee.  Entitlement is their game.  Usually, their forefathers and/or foremothers played a prominent role in the history of the church.  They cling to popular Christian writers to supplement the sermon (the sermon is always par).  Commentary at church business meetings revolve around protection of the family name, usually at the cost of propagating the gospel.  All Bible study interactions are aimed at propping up what Grandma taught.  Usually modern Zebedee brothers are white, powerful and middle-aged.  These so called “leaders” expect exactly what James and John expected:  seated glory.  As a side note, they are difficult to like.

And don’t think that pastors, young and old, are immune.  A seminary degree and a parent who was a pastor is enough to push a young person over the moon…about themselves.  Once again, I reiterate, these suffers of the Zebedee factor are not easy to like.

But this text is not about the sons of Zebedee and their request, necessarily.  The text is about the patience and long-suffering of Jesus.

Jesus does the most peculiar thing.  He entertains these thoughts of grandeur.  This is pure patience considering that in verse 33-34 (just prior to this story) Jesus has detailed his demise and rise.  It is the rise portion that has obviously caught the attention of the Zebedee boys.  This is the part of the speech most fertile for a bid at glory.  And so they make a request to reserve places of prominence in the upcoming kingdom.  Most rabbis would have given a stern reply:  “Did you not hear what I JUST SAID?”  In contrast, the gospel states that Jesus “loved” them.  He patiently reiterates the suffering.  He realigns his disciples from future glory to the upcoming cross.  James and John, refocused, accept the adjustment.  “We are able.” Instead of scoffing at these two entitled brothers, perhaps our time would be best spent marveling at the grace and patience of Jesus. 

Jesus is not a technique for getting what we want out of God; Jesus is God’s way of getting what God wants out of us.  God wants a world, a world redeemed, restored to God.  And the way God gets that is with ordinary people like us who are willing to walk like Jesus, talk like Jesus, yes, and even if need be to suffer like Jesus.-Bishop William Willimon

Jesus does not leave the ambitious duo empty handed.  He grants part of their request.  While seats of glory are not his to give, James and John do share in the suffering.  In Acts we read that Herod wanted to strike deep at the church.  He had James killed with the sword–the first of the faithful 11 to die. 

John, on the other hand, was the only disciple that did not meet a violent death. Tradition tells us that he died a very old man.  The second generation records how John died through the words of Jerome.  He writes that John could no longer walk and was carried by others at the end of his life.  He could only say a few words which were always in repetition, “Little children, love one another.” They pushed him for more, sensing these repetitions may be his last. John responded, “It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone be done, it is enough.” John had transformed into the picture of self sacrifice and urged others to do the same.

As a result of the long suffering of Jesus, who refused to cut the ambitious brothers from his inner circle they transform.  In the words of a title of a James Moore book: “They did not grow bitter but better.”

Every year my annual conference receives new seminary graduates and they take their first appointment (first church assignment).  Some appointments are more prestigious than others.  The Zebedee brothers are easy to spot:  neatly ironed golf shirts, leather brief cases to organize all that important committee paperwork, a strategic eye to the best location to meet the right people and a quick dismissal of the wrong people.  But I do not dismiss them (although it’s tempting).  After a few years they realize that this pastor thing is not as easy as seminary made it out to be.  They learn that they are not the savior…Jesus is.  A little humility and a few failures redirects ones aim from the glory of becoming a D.S. to the struggles of the local church pastor….it’s a cross and its best bore if we do it together.  After this lesson is accomplished then they truly become part of the rest of us.  They become teachable, malleable and more hopeful. (I have noticed that those that do not learn that lesson rise quickly and become terrible leaders.)

I have faith that most people can grow better.  I hope I can offer them Christ-like grace to do so when I encounter their Zebedee factor.  I also hope I can patiently redirect my own inner Zebedee brothers from the glory, future or present, to the cross.  Authentic humility is the way.

—pondering prophet out—

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