I hate to stomp on anyone's favorite hymn, but perhaps one of the worst hymns ever written, at least in terms of its theology, is this one:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; 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. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)
"Are ye able," said the Master,I say that this hymn has terrible theology because it is based upon an almost total misreading of our Gospel lectionary text for today. Let's examine the Scripture to see why....
"to be crucified with me?"
"Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered,
"to the death we follow thee."
"Lord, we are able." Our spirits are thine.
Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.
Are ye able" to remember,
when a thief lifts up his eyes,
that his pardoned soul is worthy
of a place in paradise?
"Are ye able" when the shadows
close around you with the sod,
to believe that spirit triumphs,
to commend your soul to God?
"Are ye able?" Still the Master
whispers down eternity,
and heroic spirits answer,now as then in Galilee.
First off, James and John come to Jesus with a totally self-centered request. The fact that they preface this request by asking Jesus to promise first that he will give whatever they ask is a tip-off that they know Jesus will not want to answer their request positively if they ask for it straight away. The disciples are so childish in their selfishness at this point that it is almost unbelievable.
Even though Jesus probably knows a selfish request is forthcoming, he asks his disciples anyway: "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus is so good in accommodating us this way. He knows that it is no good trying to get us to focus on higher things until we first get the lower things out of the way. That is one reason why it is no good trying to pray about one thing when you really have something else on your mind. Why not talk to the Lord about what you do have on your mind? He will understand.
Then comes the selfish request. James and John want places of honor in Jesus' coming kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples straight out: "You don't know what you're asking for." I imagine that is Jesus' response to many of our prayers. So often we do not know what we are asking for, even when we think we do know, because we do not see the whole picture as Jesus does.
Then Jesus asks James and John a very important question: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
Jesus already knows the answer to the question. He just wants James and John to think about it and hopefully come to a realization of where they really stand in relationship to God.
Then James and John answer impulsively: "We are able."
Now here is where I think the hymn above is totally wrong. The fact is: James and John were not able in and of themselves to drink Jesus' cup. The cup Jesus was talking about was the cup of his suffering for the sins of the world. None of us can pay for our own sins, let alone pay for the sins of the world. Only Jesus as perfect man and fully God can do that.
Nonetheless, Jesus tells James and John they will drink his cup. In other words, they will share in his suffering. But certainly the only way they can do that is by God's grace and power.
That's why the hymn above is so wrong. It seems to assume that we are able somehow within ourselves to save ourselves. The hymn wrongly assumes that we are worthy of a place in paradise. However, what the Bible teaches us is that we are not worthy. We are sinners in need of a savior. We are not able to do all that God requires. So we are dependent upon Jesus to do what needs to be done for us, in us, and through us.
In the second half of today's text, Jesus goes on to point out how James and John's desire for places of honor in the kingdom was all wrong. Actually, Jesus says, if you want to be great in the kingdom then you have to become a servant, a slave even, of everyone.
Then comes Jesus' most important statement of all: "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus is our model of true greatness. And it is only by the ransom he paid upon the cross that any of us can become truly great.
Are we able? No we are not. But here is a better message than the one in the hymn above....