Last Sunday in the lectionary we were reminded of the presumptuous questions to Jesus from James and John, the sons of Zebedee. (Mark 10:35-48) First they established their privilege, “ If we ask you a question will you grant our wish?” They did not ask a direct question, but wanted to establish their close relationship (their privilege) to Jesus so that a “No” answer would seem impossible. Jesus gives them a “Maybe” answer (much like a parental “We’ll see”). And like in all these sorts of exchanges Jesus means “Only if practical” and James and John interpret “Of course”.
So out of privilege and self pride as disciples they ask this presumptuous question: “Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory – one on the right and the other on your right.” Jesus replies, “You have no idea what you are asking.”
Often our questions and presumptions about the world around us and what might happen next come from our positions of privilege and pride. They come from our unconscious understanding of self—based on skin color, education, economic situation and where we live. Cathy Surgenor and I spent a month visiting with Presbyterians in Colombia last February. Most of those we visited had been forced off their ancestral land by greedy “Ipressarios” (large land owners). These folks had been forced to walk long distances to find crowded city living after simple farm living situations. Privilege and pride in the farming communities were the result of small sustainable farms in a community of similar folks. In the cities they had no land or yards, had to find employment where ever they could and were afraid of the corruption all around them.
But these folks in Colombia and the Presbyterian Church leaders in Colombia learned ask questions out of wonder as they encountered the church and church people. They live with no sense of privilege except that they are welcomed into the church. The church lives and preaches equality which is not equal opportunity to accumulate/steal wealth but opportunity to work for peace in communities and in their country. The Colombians ask questions about scripture and lives of faith that come from their sense of wonder. Wonder that when I feel so useless a God and community of faith welcome me.
It is easy for us today to act and speak from our position of privilege and pride. To think that it will always happen to “them” rather than me or my family.
As our elections near, I would suggest that we enter into conversations and relationships with questions of wonder rather than positions of privilege. I am reminded that when my parents moved to a retirement community years ago there was a rule about dinner conversations. No one would discuss their health, grandchildren or politics. Once this became the norm they began to discover wonderful things about each other and to forge great friendships.
In the days ahead, take moments to talk with others without discussing politics, grandchildren (or children), health and anything else that makes us feel more special. Wonder about each other. Find the special in each to build relationships that will endure through the next two weeks and beyond.
Remember that this passage ends with the famous pronouncement, “but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Put others first in your conversations, your wonderings and your questions.
Peter Surgenor retired in September 2017 after 18 years as the Executive Director of Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center. He is currently finishing service as the Temporary General Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery. Elder Deb Milcarek will become the next General Presbyter on November 1, 2018. Peter and his wife Cathy live in Newburgh, NY.