In today’s Gospel we hear two of the disciples, brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee the fisherman, make a specific request of Jesus. They had dreamed, as most of the Hebrews dreamed, of a coming king of Israel who would set Jerusalem free of Roman occupation, establish his kingdom’s capitol on Mount Zion, and in righteousness rule the world. They thought of Jesus as this kind of king. They were thinking of that day when Jesus would reign as this new king of Israel. And they were saying, “Now when you establish your kingdom, let one of us sit on the right hand and the other on the left hand of your throne.”
They imagined themselves to be at the top of Jesus’ cabinet—chief advisors in the new administration: James and John, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.
But the problem with James and John and the other disciples as well—the problem with many of their successors among the followers of Jesus, right up to the present day—is that we’ve all got some of Zebedee’s DNA. We, too, would like to have some power and authority and some recognition.
In one of his last sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, just five weeks before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on this same text in a sermon he titled, “The Drum Major Instinct.”
The drum major instinct, he said, is “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it’s something that runs the whole gamut of life” from the infant who demands to have to have her need for milk or a clean diaper to be met before all other’s needs are given attention—to the desire to win the weekly Bingo game in the nursing home.
So before we condemn James and John, let’s understand that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.
But before we rush out to join the Jesus’ parade, let’s pause to listen and try to understand what he’s saying.
Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
What James and John and the rest of the disciples didn’t understand is that the kingdom that Jesus came to usher in wasn’t simply the restoration of the kingdom of David or a replacement for the Kingdom of Caesar—but the realm of God that is a whole alternate reality.
The image for that is captured in a scene that we can imagine from Palm Sunday. The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that there were two processions that entered the holy city of Jerusalem that day. (Or if not on the same day, they were very close in time.)
The one we don’t hear about very often entered from the west gate of the city. Heading that procession was Pontius Pilate, riding a warhorse, leading 600 mounted and foot soldiers, all fully armed and carrying the insignia and trappings of power and empire, domination and control. They were from the Legio 10thFretensis, Legion of the Boar, that occupied Palestine in the time of Jesus. Their symbol was the head of a pig that they proudly flew as they marched into the capitol of the Jews. They came to Jerusalem in order to reinforce the local garrison for the Feast of the Passover.
Coming in from the East gate of Jerusalem was another procession . . . a counter procession . . . led by Jesus riding on the foal of an ass, with a ragtag crowd of Galilean peasants and other poor folk, waving and throwing palm branches . . . proclaiming, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Two contrasting processions: dominion, empire, wealth and power on the one hand; freedom, justice, humility, and love on the other. It was a form of guerilla theater.
Another contrast: Caesar sitting on a golden throne and wearing a gold crown. And Jesus, a crown of thorns on his head, his throne a hard wooden cross, a sign above proclaiming “The King of the Jews,” and his companions, one on his right and one on his left, both thieves. Not exactly the scene that James and John were imagining when they asked Jesus to be on his right and left when he came into his glory.
‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
There are different ways of being in the world. There’s the way of the powers and the principalities of this world and there’s the path taken by Jesus. He said to his disciples:
‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
When Dr. King preached his sermon on “The Drum Major Instinct,” he asked:
What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You’re out of your place. You’re selfish. Why would you raise such a question?”
But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first.
But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That’s what I want you to do.”
The church is called to this alternate reality. The test of the faithful church is never about our personal priorities or aggrandizement. By the standards of the world, Jesus was a dismal failure. The test of the faithful church isn’t whether we can make a show of power and strength, but whether we are servants of one another—and servants of those that Jesus brings to our attention.
Who are you serving today? This week? It may be a member of the church. Perhaps a personal friend. Or someone in your neighborhood or at the grocery store. Stand up for them. Comfort them. Seek for their wellbeing and their peace.
And you will be a Drum Major for Jesus.