The Rector’s sermon for October 21, 2018


Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37; Hebrews 5:1-10; 2:5-12; Mark 10:35-45


In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he is giving his life as a ransom for many.  But how many of us want anything to do with being ransomed? 


In 1957 the oil industrialist J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) was proclaimed the richest man in the world. By any standard he was wealthy beyond most people’s dreams.  He collected art from around the world and left behind a foundation that maintains several museums and galleries, including some that are open free to the public. But he was also known as frugal; maybe “cheap” is an even better word.  Despite his wealth, he put locks on the phones in his office buildings so that only authorized people could make phone calls.  Most employees had to use the pay telephones Getty had installed.


In 1973, his grandson J. Paul Getty III, then only 16 years old, was kidnapped. A ransom of $17 million was demanded originally.  Getty, believing this might be a scheme by the grandson to extort money from him, refused to pay.  When an envelope containing some of his grandson’s hair and part of an ear arrived, along with a threat to continue to mutilate the boy if no money arrived, Getty finally became convinced that an actual kidnapping had taken place.  However, even then he haggled over the amount. The kidnappers demanded $3.2 million, but Getty only wanted to pay $2.2 million, which was the highest amount that could be used as a tax deduction. He eventually paid $3 million for his grandson’s release, but he charged him 4 percent interest on the $800,000 difference between the tax-free amount and what he actually had to pay.  Getty died a few years later. His grandson plunged into a spiral of self-destructive behavior until he went into a coma that lasted until his death decades later.


Paying a ransom for someone’s release has a long and almost honorable history. There was a time, for example, when capturing a person of royalty during a battle meant a big cash payoff. You didn’t want to kill or harm such a person. They were more valuable alive. Otherwise you couldn’t collect a ransom for them. There were rules for ransom — at least when it came to nobility.


Certainly you would think anyone held for ransom would want to be freed. But what happens if someone doesn’t want to be ransomed?   Today Jesus tells his disciples that he is giving his life as a ransom for many.  But how many of us want nothing to do with being ransomed?


Today’s reading begins with an unreasonable request.  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask that Jesus give them whatever they request, without telling him what it is they want.  Would any of us agree to such terms?

We see the flip side of what can happen when someone offers to give whatever is requested no matter what when Herod Agrippa drunkenly offers his stepdaughter whatever she wants, up to half his kingdom. He comes to regret his offer when she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.


As it turns out James and John ask for something they really wouldn’t want because they don’t know what it is they’re asking. They ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom. They’re imagining a throne room, with Jesus wearing a crown and holding a scepter, while they occupy the places of honor. They want to be seen when the adoring crowds look up to the new king on this throne.


Perhaps, too, they were thinking of a passage that was a favorite in that time, the one from Daniel where the prophet sees the Ancient of Days seated on a throne in the heavenly court, and on his right is one like a “son of man.”  Ezekiel used “son of man” to mean a human being.  But in Daniel, the term seems to point to one who was both human and divine.  Jesus uses this term to refer to himself.  Now, elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus warns us against seeking that place of honor. He criticizes the political and religious leaders of the people because they want the chief seats of honor.   He warns against taking such a seat without being asked, because you might be embarrassed when you’re asked to get up and take a seat further away from the front.  It’s better, he tells us, to sit farther away and be invited to come sit at a higher place.


This is the sixth time James and John appear in the Gospel of Mark.  It follows a crucial passage in which Jesus explains to the disciples what it means to be the Messiah — it means being the Suffering Servant. It means death on the cross.  Keep in mind that James and John were two of the three apostles who saw the Transfiguration. They were part of the inner circle. Still, when Jesus explains what awaits him in Jerusalem, they don’t get it.


So “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.’”


Even though James and John don’t know what they’re asking, they will indeed share from that cup, first at the Last Supper and then in their own martyrdoms.  According to Acts 12:2, James was beheaded by one of the Herods, and there is a tradition that John the son of Zebedee also suffered a martyr’s death, but this is not found in scripture.


So what does all this mean for us?  Our destiny, like that of the apostles, is linked with Jesus. To become a disciple is to set out on a road of martyrdom. What form of martyrdom?  Well, Jesus tells us clearly. When the other disciples object to what James and John have asked for, Jesus tells them, “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.”  The word translated as “serve” comes from the word from which we get “deacon,” which also means a table waiter. We are called to serve, to wait upon each other.


Jesus wants servant leaders, table-waiter leaders!  Our road to martyrdom may consist of giving the last full measure of life, but it may also consist of a lifelong devotion to service to each other and to the world.  In a few weeks we will embark on our 2019 Stewardship Journey and today’s message of service speaks volumes to offering our time, our talent and our treasure in service of the church of Christ.


So, what does the last part of Jesus’ words mean—giving his life as a ransom for many?  Earlier we considered the story of Getty who needed proof that his grandson really needed to be ransomed, and even then haggled over the amount to be paid, even though he could afford it without difficulty.  Conversely, Jesus knows us!  Jesus doesn’t need proof of who we are in order to ransom us.  Jesus offers his life as a ransom for us regardless of the demand—death on a cross. What a contrast between Getty and Jesus!


So here are some questions for you to consider: What if we won’t accept the ransom paid for us?  What if we don’t accept the cross of Jesus as the key to our salvation?  What if the cross is a stumbling block to us?  What if we think we’re not captive to sin?


Is such a thing possible?  Are there those who prefer the slavery of sin, who prefer to be held captive to the world, who would rather remain a prisoner than accept freedom from sin?  I can’t answer those questions for you; YOU have to answer for yourself. You are the one who must accept the cross of Christ, the ransom of Jesus, the path of freedom offered to you.


My prayer is that you answer wisely, because your eternal life depends on it.