This fall, our church has launched a new Bible study session, on Sundays between the two church services, to discuss the portion of the Gospel that will be read in church that day. As Episcopalians, we follow a lectionary that tells us which scriptures to read each day, and this fall the Gospel readings for Sundays have been sequential passages from Mark, so each week we’re getting the next part of that story.
I’ve read the Gospel of Mark all the way through several times, but this time I’ve been especially struck by all the places where Jesus says or demonstrates that the way to get what we need is to ask. Several people are healed because they asked Jesus to help them. Jesus asks the disciples to hand over their few fishes and loaves of bread, gives thanks for them, and manages to feed thousands of people. When the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus what he means by what he’s said, they don’t learn anything. Jesus says that anyone who calls upon his name (asks to borrow his power) to drive out demons is doing the right thing, even if that person isn’t a recognized disciple. He says that people who come to him like little children seeking his blessing will receive it.
Over and over, I’m hearing, “Just ask! You can have whatever you need. All you have to do is ask!” I tend to have trouble asking for what I need, and this includes asking God–I often realize that I have been praying for help accepting the situation as it is and doing what I think I’ll have to do, instead of for what I really wish would happen, because I guess I think that’s more humble or polite or something. This often makes life really difficult for me and leads to my resenting people for failing to do what I hoped they would do, though I never asked them to do it. I’m working on it! This Bible study and the discussions we’ve been having–when other people talk about things they’ve asked for and how it worked out–have been helping me a lot.
But a couple of weeks ago, nobody showed up for Bible study except for my seven-year-old Nicholas and me. Nicholas had attended all the previous sessions, and sometimes when we talked afterward I could tell he’d been listening pretty closely, but he’d never participated much. This time I was determined to get him involved. The reading was Mark 10:35-45, and I read aloud all ten translations available in our church library. Nicholas enjoys hearing different versions (he also likes looking them up, which is good for his numerical and literacy skills), and I like the way the repetition helps the key points get through to me. Here is the Good News version:
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “there is something we want you to do for us.”
36 “What is it?” Jesus asked them.
37 They answered, “When you sit on your throne in your glorious Kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left.”
38 Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking for. Can you drink the cup of suffering that I must drink? Can you be baptized in the way I must be baptized?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup I must drink and be baptized in the way I must be baptized. 40 But I do not have the right to choose who will sit at my right and my left. It is God who will give these places to those for whom he has prepared them.”
41 When the other ten disciples heard about it, they became angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them all together to him and said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. 43 This, however, is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; 44 and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.”
Nicholas and I talked for a while about that last part. It’s easy to understand why the other disciples were mad that James and John asked for the special seats–they were thinking they’re more important than the other guys! Jesus says that the way to be a good leader is not to think you’re more important but to treat others as important and take care of them; that is the way to be a great person. Good stuff, but we knew that already. Hmmm…
After a while, I mused, “God will give those places to those for whom he has prepared them. I wonder who those are? Who do you think gets to sit next to Jesus?”
Nicholas looked surprised. “Well, we know who’s on one side. We say it in church every time: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. So if Jesus is sitting to the right of God, then God is sitting to the left of Jesus.”
Of course! It’s perfectly logical! We speculated for a while about who’s to the right of Jesus–the Holy Spirit? or is the Holy Spirit maybe at the left hand of God? Who gets to sit in the middle of the Trinity? If Jesus is not in the middle, then who’s on his other side? Maybe the members of the Trinity are sitting in a circle so nobody’s in the middle?–but eventually returned to the conclusion that one of the seats next to Jesus is for the Almighty Maker of All That Is Seen and Unseen, and the implications of that for the request of James and John.
Basically, James and John were saying, “Hey, can we sit in God’s chair?” They did not know what they were asking! They just wanted to sit next to Jesus. They didn’t realize how presumptuous they were being. They were willing to take on the sacrifices and responsibilities of Christians, but they wanted a special reward for it–and while we don’t know, either, exactly what it would mean to sit in God’s chair, we can assume it would be a lot more than James and John bargained for.
This insight from Nicholas helped me to focus on the one sentence in this reading that I most needed to hear and think about (just as his behavior years ago forced me to focus on one sentence I needed from the Book of Jonah). Yes, I need to work on asking for what I need, but in the process I must resist feeling discouraged every time I don’t get what I asked for. Sometimes, I won’t know what I am asking, won’t be able to see every bit of how it would turn out and what it would mean for me and everyone else. This is an especially important idea for me to keep in mind in these last few weeks before the date when I would have given birth if our embryo had not died in April. While I no longer feel that I am living on the flip side of my own timeline, at times I still feel wistful about the child I’ll never know and angry about the four weeks of nausea and exhaustion I suffered with no worthwhile result. It’s been confusing and weird, and all along it’s helped a lot to trust that God has reasons for everything that happens to us, even when I can’t understand them.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me! Don’t try to stop them. People who are like these little children belong to the kingdom of God. I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.”
Asking my child to help me understand the Bible worked for me!