17 Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The story of Tom Canty is fascinating. Tom grew up in a rough part of London called Offal Court, but he pined for something better. He was poor and miserable, an unloved son of an abusive father. One day, while daydreaming of a better life, he ends up outside the palace in Westminster. A palace guard does not approve of this beggar boy being up by the fence and begins to get rid of the boy. But another boy from inside the palace fence named Edward stepped in to help Tom and invited him into the palace to play. As Edward hears how terrible Tom’s life is, he feels sorry for him, but he’s also interested in what life might be like on the other side of the palace fences. The boys exchange clothes to see what it’s like to walk around, literally, in each other’s shoes. They notice how they look very similar. They even have the same birthday. After a while, they go back oustide still looking like the other. When Edward, who’s dressed up as Tom, starts telling a guard what to do, the guard throws him out. Tom winds up in the palace as the prince. It’s a rags to riches story that never seemed possible.
That story is fiction, written by Mark Twain for his three girls. However, it does accurately describe what is going on today in the Gospel. The mother of James and John wanted her sons to have what Tom had. They did not deserve a place of power. They were sons of a fisherman from Galilee. They weren’t headed for great things. I’m not saying they had a bad family life or that they were miserably poor. Scripture doesn’t tell us that. I’m saying fisherman from Galilee don’t get to be rulers of a kingdom that often. But that’s exactly what mom wanted for her boys.
There’s a part of that story we love. We like the idea that a mother would go out of her way to try and help her boys. We like the rags to riches stories. Whether it’s an athlete who came from a rough childhood or a business mogul who built a huge corporation out of his garage, these stories inspire the masses.
But then there’s the other side of this mother’s request, the part that makes the other ten disciples indignant, really angry. You can almost hear them say, “What kind of question is that to ask Jesus? Seriously James and John, you think you are better than us? You think you deserve that much power?” You think you can handle it? How selfish can you and your mother be?”
That kind of self-centered view seems to describe a lot people. We can see it all over in our world. At work, at school, in Walmart, out to eat, on the news, in Hollywood – it’s not hard to notice how selfish people can be. They want the world to revolve around them. They only care about themselves and their future. That’s all that matters.
In that story from Mark Twain, Tom Canty wanted more in life. He only cared about changing his circumstances. But this isn’t just something that affects characters in novels or people in our self-obsessed society. This self-centered ideology is so natural for followers of Jesus, too. Guess who James and John were? Guess who their mom was? They were devoted believers in Jesus. They gave up a lot to be followers of Jesus. John is the one wrote 5 books of the New Testament under God’s verbal inspiration. We’re not talking about opponents of Jesus here. And still, they were corrupted by their selfish desires for power. That was one of the disciples’ ongoing discussions: who was the greatest.
And if you’re saying to yourself right now, “Well, I don’t think that way. I don’t argue with people about who’s the greatest. I don’t make the world revolve around me. I don’t ask for positions of power.” Then I have to ask, you’ve never put yourself first, thought about your preferences over someone else’s, or wished people would treat you the way you wanted? Or maybe put it this way: would you really want to be in Tom’s position? Would you really want to be the one who has to give up so much while other people are prospering? Jesus says “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave…” Does a servant or slave really sound like a great life? Would you really like being the doormat for people at work? Would you really enjoy being the beggar? NO! I don’t think anyone of us would mind if life would go a little bit more according to my plan? It would be nice to have a little more control. Who would say no to a little switch like the one Tom Canty had in Mark Twain’s novel, instead of begging for money and food and going home to a terrible father, he was served hand and foot as prince of England.
It’s totally natural to think that would be great. It’s totally natural for the mother of James and John to have a self-centered request for Jesus on behalf of her boys. It’s totally natural for them to think that they can handle themselves on Jesus right and left. We are naturally selfish, thinking that we are important and deserve good things. We are born to care about our needs first. And that kind of selfishness gets us nowhere with God. In fact, that kind of selfishness originates in us because that’s exactly the way the devil thinks. He’s the one who tempted our great…grandparents, Adam and Eve, to think they were more important than God. When they gave in, they passed that selfishness down to every generation since. The rags to riches story is exciting and inspiring, but it naturally is just not possible for us.
Remember, however, that Mark Twain’s story is not just about Tom Canty. It’s also about Edward Tudor, the real prince and son of Henry VIII. See, he was thrown out of the castle. At the time it seemed intriguing to him to see what London was really like. He thought he could handle it, but when he was outside those walls, it wasn’t so great. He met Tom’s terrible father and experienced the harsh reality of life without privilege. He learned what it was like to serve rather than be served. He went from riches to rags.
There’s someone else who found out what that was like. And he’s center stage in the Gospel for today. Jesus was ruler over creation. He sat on heaven’s throne, but he left that palace. He wasn’t thrown out against his will like Edward. He willingly came to the place of selfish sinners. He put on our clothes. He went from riches to rags. He became lowly to the point of being beaten and mocked and killed as a criminal.
All of that wasn’t for an experiment to see what life was like here. It wasn’t to set a humble and caring example to show us how to earn God’s love. Jesus took our place to endure what we could not endure. He suffered the punishment for sin so that we wouldn’t have to. He gave his life as the full payment for our debts. The Son of God was not served, but he served us. He was not treated the way he deserved, and he endured it to give us what we don’t deserve. Our rags are taken away and replaced with his robes of righteousness. We have free forgiveness because he served us with his suffering and death.
You know, eventually in Mark Twain’s novel, Edward got back to the castle to find that his father had died and Tom, who everyone thought was Edward, was now the king of England. Well, (I’m summarizing a lot of this) Edward proved that he was actually the rightful king by providing the Great Seal of England. Edward is restored to his position as king and he doesn’t punish Tom. Instead, Edward gives Tom a new position as King’s Ward. Tom is delighted to be in the King’s service. And as a result of his time spent as a poor beggar, Edward rules England with more compassion and mercy.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus came back, too. He went from riches to rags, but he didn’t stay in the rags. He didn’t remain in the tomb. He came back to life for us so that we would be helplessly lost. He made everything right and took his rightful spot on the throne so that we would have a compassionate and merciful ruler for the rest of eternity.
And in his mercy, he gives us a position of service. We get to be in witnesses of the King of kings. We get to do helpful and beneficial tasks in service to the Savior of all. We get to tell people how great Jesus is. We get to tell people that he went from riches to rags and back again so that we could go from rags to riches. We get to tell people that Jesus isn’t a mean judge, but a merciful ruler who saves his people from harm. Every once in a while the work might get hard or even dangerous, but there is nothing to fear with Jesus as our Savior. He has done away with anything that can hinder or destroy us. He has freed us from all the selfishness that surrounds us. He has given us a new way of looking at people, not as obstacles getting in the way of what I want but as souls for whom Christ died.
We get to be involved in this work as individuals and also as a church. Jesus joins us together in this family of believers where not everyone has the same interests and abilities, but everyone has a job of service to the Savior. The job is not to be like the mother of James and John, looking for the positions of power. The job is to serve the Lord. Maybe it’s with your voice, by singing praises beautifully or inviting those you know to worship or teaching children about their God or praying diligently for so many people. Maybe it’s with your time to help plan and prioritize our ministry. Maybe it’s with gifts that make projects and plans possible. Maybe it’s with your hard work to help take care of our properties. Maybe it’s with your cooking.
Every one of us has been put into the service of Jesus, because he first served us with his whole life, his suffering and death, and his resurrection. Now, he rules for us so that we can serve him without fear.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus’ riches to rags story means we have a rags to riches story that never ends. Amen.