Jesus challenges worldly ambition (Micah 6:1-8 & Mk 10:35-44)

‘Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation; 
listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. 
For the Lord has a case against his people; 
he is lodging a charge against Israel.’

Words taken from our first reading from the book of Micah, where God was lodging a charge against his people. But why? What had they done? Well this morning’s texts are both about ‘Worldly Ambitions’: those temptations which push our thoughts of God to one side whilst we try and further our own aspirations. Here in our first reading, God reminded his people that he had led them safely out of Egypt and then asks the them question,

“How have I burdened you?”

And, because of their grumblings and their wilfulness, he tells them to remember what Balak, the king of Moab, plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Now this is a story which is tucked away in the Book of Numbers so it may not be too familiar, but it describes a time when the Israelites had crushed the Amorite people and had then travelled on to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan opposite Jericho. Balak knew of their recent conquests and when he saw the size of the Israelite army he was terrified that he would be next on their hit list. Balaam, on the other hand, was known to be a man of God so, Balak sent his elders to fetch him and gave them a message which said:

‘A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. 
Come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. 
Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. 
For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.’

Well the story then rambles on a bit, including the part where Balaam’s donkey begins to talk to him, but God eventually tells Balaam to go to Balak and says

‘do only what I tell you to do.’

So when Balak when requested Balaam to denounce the people of Israel and put a curse on them, Balaam replied:

How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced?

Balak wasn’t happy with this and said:

‘What have you done to me? 
I brought you to curse my enemies,
but you have done nothing but bless them!’

To which Balaam replied:

‘Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?’

So we have here a contrast between two men: one who very much wanted his own way and to prosper, and a the other who was willing to do the will of God, even though he knew his life was on the line — very much like Jesus when you think about it, in our second reading.

This time it was Jesus’ own disciples, James and John, who coame to him with a demand:

‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’

But again, Jesus accepted that his Father was in control and refused their attempt to call the shots.

‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, 
but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. 
These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’

That was not just a biblical story, it would also have been a life lesson for those who heard it, there may even have been other church leaders who were seeking higher status and privilege for themselves. James and John seem to have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching and think they have a right to demand a reward. To be honest, they may have been living under the misapprehension that Jesus was entering Jerusalem to claim the Davidic throne and rule the nation rather than submitting to the cross, so their request could easily have been, “Can we sit next to you in your earthly kingdom?” But Jesus’ reply was a reminder for them of the necessity of suffering.

The ‘cup’ was used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for what God had in store for an individual and, in contemporary Greek, baptism stood for being flooded with calamities, as in baptism of fire. That request to sit on the right and left of Jesus, only to be told that those places belong to those to whom they had been assigned, contrasts remarkably to the death of Jesus where two robbers are allocated those positions to his right and left. The irony of this outcome is clear for all to see.

So there we have two very different stories about people who wanted their own way on the one hand, and people who were God centred on the other — and the question is, “Where do we sit?” Do we want things to work out just as we would have them? Or are we willing to forsake our own inner feelings and be open to the will of God? Are we looking for status and privilege — if so, what good are these in the life to come — or are we happy to accept the cup we have been offered, and the baptism we have been baptised with.

One thing is clear, when we were born no-one promised us that life would be easy, pain free or long. But if we put our trust in God, instead of continually approaching him with our demands, we know that we will be cared for.

I can’t help think about the wedding in Cana. When Mary noticed the wine was running out she didn’t go to Jesus and say, “You must do what I say!” She simply went to him and highlighted the problem with the words, “They have no wine.” and left the rest to him. So let’s be more like Mary: let’s be humble; let’s trust the Almighty; let’s be willing to layout our concerns before God, but then leave the rest to him — without telling him how we would have it be.

Alan Dowen