Picking up my son from school is a frustrating and sometimes terrifying experience. This is due to the absence of parking around his school. Cars jam up against the sidewalks, squeezing in wherever the driver believes they can fit; parents and children weave between the parked cars, dashing across the street without warning. Cars double park (and on one occasion triple park!) each other, as they wait for children to come out. Never before did I consider parking as a potential instigator of road rage. So I will admit to that which, in some circles, is the most cardinal of sins: I have prayed for a parking space.
Have you ever taken the time to ponder the motivation behind your prayers? I must admit that sometimes, my prayers can be very selfish. Sometimes, the requests I bring to God highlight my own inward desire to have it my own way, to establish my own kingdom, to become one that others envy. Like James and John, I approach Jesus seeking his aid in establishing my own way of control or power.
You remember the account, don’t you? James and John approach Jesus with the bold request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.’ This request might sound OK—after all, it is couched in religious language, and it uses all the right words: Jesus, Kingdom, glory. James and John probably felt very confident in their request. But when we peel back the layers of this request what do we see? What is the motivation behind this prayer?
In a word: power. James and John request the establishment of their own power. Sure, they give the top spot to Jesus—it is his Kingdom—yet in this prayer, they desire to out-maneuver the other disciples. They want to be second and third in importance: the VP and CEO in the heavenly corporation. All would look to them. They wished to be the people who called the shots, who held authority over others. When we peel back the layers of this request, we find that the entire exchange with Jesus is rooted in James and John’s desire for prestige and self-promotion.
When we look at the words of James and John, their bravado is really quite astounding.
“We want you do to do for us whatever we ask.” Give us what we want, when we want it, without any questions. Take our orders and make it snappy.
“Grant that we sit on your right and your left.” We deserve the most power that we can possibly have. We don’t want to serve, we want to rule!
Before I condemn James and John, I should probably ask myself about how and when I have echoed these sentiments. When have I demanded Jesus to do what I want ? When have my prayers been simply about maximizing my own ease or comfort?
What makes this exchange so interesting is the fact that it is preceded directly by Jesus telling the disciples, again, that he was on his way to being delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes who will condemn him to death. Jesus never once hid the course of his life and mission from the disciples. The way of Jesus is completely different from the way of the world. The world is rooted on the axis of power, yet the way of Jesus is founded upon loving self-sacrifice. The way of Jesus is the way of love, of grace, of forgiveness, and it is this way that he calls his disciples to walk: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be a servant of all.’
Jesus never criticizes James and John for their bold statements. It is a wonderful blessing that we are encouraged to come to Jesus with all the boldness we can muster. Still, in the midst of such boldness, we are challenged to think about our inner selves, and the motivations with which we approach Jesus with our requests. Why do we ask what we ask?
The main question is this: which way of life are we choosing to live in? Do we offer our prayers out of a desire to walk deeper along the way of Jesus? Do we wish to find ourselves more rooted in a love which moves us to self-sacrifice, to forgiveness, to the service of others? Are we longing to walk with Jesus toward the cross with a willingness to experience the hardships and discomfort that such a journey may bring us? Or are we seeking our own promotions? Are we going to Jesus because we want Jesus to build our kingdom, to shine a spotlight on our greatness? Is the answer to prayer more about our own glory than his?
These can be hard questions, especially when we ask them in true authenticity. When I am honest with myself, my prayer for a parking spot has little to do with a desire to serve Jesus, or to serve those around me. In fact, the prayer is often rooted in a view of others as nothing more than annoyances, irritations, disruptions to my well-crafted life and schedule. It is a prayer for an easy life, a life free of complications and struggles, a life where I can simply lean back and bask in how great I am.
But, that’s the world talking, and a life with Jesus is completely opposed to this. Jesus pushes me to lay down my self—my prestige, my power, my controls. I am challenged to follow in his way and embrace the other in loving service. I am called to see myself, not as the person at the top to which others aspire, but as the person at the bottom, supporting the other in a spirit of love and grace.
If I see a parking space as something I deserve, then I am basing my prayer on my own glorification. Yet, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. This is the way of Jesus, and it is this way that he invites us to walk… and park.