What do you want me to do for you?
On Mark 10.35-45
The exchange we heard from today's Gospel reading (Mark 10.35-45) is a teaching about the way we try to get our needs met in this world, and the problem of not realising how conditioned our needs are.
James and John come to Jesus asking for a favour, and Jesus responds:
'What do you want me to do for you?'
How often we reduce faith to this kind of transaction! Endlessly coming to Jesus wanting him to ask what he can do for us. And how often we are self-deluded about the things we are asking for!
This is not just a passage about leadership and power, though this is the surface issue. This exchange teaches us about the nature of our wants, and the angst that gets stirred up when it seems like our ability to get what we want is diminished by somebody else getting what they want. And Jesus' teaching to the disciples and therefore to us, is the paradox that to get what we want we must radically question the terms on which we want it, and surrender our wanting to the transforming journey of loss.
James and John want to be great. To be somebody. To have the seats next to Jesus in his glory. When the other disciples find out they have asked for this they are indignant. They all want the same thing, it seems, and there are only two seats available.
Most of our wants are generated out of what Thomas Keating has called the 'false self system'- our inner, unconscious programmes for happiness that are hard-wired within us to make sure we get our share of power and control, esteem and affection, safety and security. Some of us want some of these things more than others – we are driven more powerfully by some of those needs than others. But each day, our choices of what to say, what to do and not do, what to wear, who to spend time with, what to join, and what to buy, these choices are to a great extent serving the demands of our inner ego-drivers for power and control, esteem and affection, safety and security.
This Gospel story is about James, John and the other disciples interpreting the arc of Jesus' life as serving their need for power, security and esteem. They are fantasising about the time when he's in glory, running the show, and they're right there alongside him, occupying the positions of highest status. They don't seem to have listened to what Jesus has been trying to tell them about what's coming up for him in Jerusalem. Jesus has to tell them again - he hasn't, in fact, come to meet their needs for power, security and esteem. He can't give them what they want.
He can only invite them to join him on the path of letting go of the false self system altogether. The cup he will drink from, and the baptism with which he will be baptised is the cup and baptism of crucifixion – where he is powerless, humiliated, abandoned and his life is forfeit.
The annoyance of the other disciples when they hear of James and John's requests is something we might recognise. Often, we are not aware of the operation of our programmes for happiness until something seems to oppose them, when we find ourselves becoming agitated or feeling defensive or competitive. These emotions are a sign to us that an element of our false self system is feeling threatened. Someone else gets more praise than us, or seems to fit more easily into the group, someone is promoted and we are not, someone is flexing their leadership muscle and we feel sidelined, our landlord puts the rent up, or wants to sell the house, our friend seems to suddenly enjoy someone else's company more than ours. When these things happen, the temptation is to start running our usual inner scripts, whatever they may be – 'I'm not good enough, she's always undermining people, he's power-hungry, this world is not a safe place, I'm always being left out...'
Jesus hears the disciples start to run their script of competition that comes from a thwarted desire to be powerful, or closest to Jesus, or protected by him. And he challenges them to step into a different narrative, one where the last is first, and the leader is a servant. And where people can choose to be last and to be a servant, because within themselves they know they are loved, cared for, and provided for, without needing to strive or compete or control to have or be enough.
Only when we come to see many of our wants for what they are – programmes to avoid pain and meet the fearful demands of our ego – can we become vulnerable enough to serve, and give our lives to others. Often, it takes the experience of failure, or pain, or losing what we thought we needed, to find out that beneath all the compensating drivers that generate so many of our thoughts and actions, there is a presence, an enfolding, a gaze of love, that is God within our deepest core.
We are going to take some time to be silent. In the stillness, I invite you to enter in your imaginations into this passage. Imagine going to Jesus and having him say to you 'what do you want me to do for you?' And gently allow the dialogue to unfold, allowing the Christ who is in your mind and spirit to illuminate the 'wants beneath the wants.'
Or, if you prefer, simply enter into the silence by way of centering prayer or a mantra meditation, allowing God to continue the work of untangling the knot of distractions that holds the false self system in place.