Downward Mobility

When James and John were called to be disciples, they were along the seashore, in the boat mending the nets with their father, Zebedee. Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” And they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.

I wonder what Zebedee knew about Jesus at that point. Was he excited that his sons had been called by this Jesus that was causing such a stir? Or did he argue with them that they had responsibilities and were making a rash decision without considering the consequences? What did he tell their mom, Salome, when he returned home that evening without the boys?

We know that Zebedee and Salome were, shall we say, comfortable. They might have been what we would call upper-middleclass. Zebedee owned a fleet of fishing boats and hired workers to fish with him. So, when he returned home without the sons that would inherit the family business, without the sons who would take care of them in their old age, I wonder what Salome, their mom, said. We don’t know how the conversation went, but we do know that Salome became a follower of Jesus, too. Tradition says that Salome financially supported Jesus and the disciples throughout Jesus’ ministry, and the Gospel of Mark names her as one of the women who went to the tomb of Jesus with spices to anoint his body.

Matthew tells us that Salome is the one who goes to Jesus to ask that her sons, James and John, take the places of honor at his right and left when he is seated on his throne in glory. While Mark tells us that the two brothers approach Jesus themselves. I wonder if Salome was so involved in this request that it wasn’t clear whose request it really was. Did she encourage them to ask? Was she standing nearby, eager to hear Jesus recognize her sons as the two to flank him in glory?

In 2014, there was a survey done of parents’ hopes and dreams for their children. The number one desire was for their children to be healthy and the second was for them “to have a ‘good life’ or ‘good future’. They also wanted them to have opportunities, to try their best, and to do something meaningful and productive with their life. (Jodie Benveniste, “What Parents Really Want for Their Kids”).”

Not much has changed in 2000 years. Salome had hopes and dreams for her boys, and when Jesus was crowned king and sat on his throne, she wanted her boys to sit in the places of honor beside Jesus. They had sacrificed so much for this moment. She had invested financially in Jesus’ mission, they had sacrificed having their sons there to help run the family business, James and John had left everything to learn from Jesus, …let them sit in the seats of honor, let your coronation be their ascension to power…

And Jesus’ response was, “You have no idea what you are asking. Are you prepared to drink the cup I drink, to be baptized in the baptism I will be plunged into?” My kingdom will be an inverted society. The ones who are recognized as greatest will be the ones who serve most humbly. Whoever wants to be first will put everyone else first. I came to serve, not to be served.

Henri Nouwen described this way of life as “downward mobility,” pointing out that “The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.”

But how do we become downwardly mobile? Nouwen decribes three temptations that confront us and keep us from moving downward. Over and over again in our lives, we are faced with temptations, Nouwen says, to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful.

When Jesus was at the wedding in Cana, his mother asked him to save face for the family and turn water into wine – to be a miracle worker. It’s interesting to me that Jesus never took credit publicly for the miracle. The servants knew what had happened, and the disciples, but not even the wine steward knew where it came from. Jesus did not give in to the temptation to be relevant, to be remarkable. He didn’t take a bow. He didn’t step forward when the wine steward asked the bridegroom why he had saved the best wine until last and explain that actually the bridegroom had run out of wine, but that he had saved the day. Instead, Jesus left and went down to Capernaum for a few days.

The temptation to be relevant is so insidious because it is so close to our callings in life. It is so easy to take the recognition of being remarkable when we are using the gifts that God has given us. It is easy to start believing that we are the only ones who can do what we do, to do things for the appreciation, to become preoccupied with the results, the progress, and the accolades and respect of the world.

The second temptation is about being in the spotlight, too. When Jesus was in the wilderness, he was tempted to throw himself down from the highest point on the Temple where everyone could see God saving him. The temptation to be spectacular is the temptation to draw attention. At first, it may seem like we are drawing attention to God. If Jesus had been at the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where God dwelt in the Holy of Holies, then surely everyone would have seen him there. All eyes would have been on God because he had drawn their attention. Except, their attention would not have really been on God, but on this guy up on top who was threatening to jump.

Nouwen says that “stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church. There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.” Downward mobility is a movement into community identity rather than individual recognition.

And it is a rejection of the temptation that had the better of James and John, the temptation to be powerful. James and John want to be able to influence Jesus when he ascends his throne. They hope to be recognized as the go-to guys when you need something from the King. Nouwen writes, “When I ask myself the main reason for so many people having left the Church during the past decades, the word “power” easily comes to mind. One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation to power–political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power–even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are. What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

“It seems nearly impossible for us to believe that any good can come from powerlessness. In this country of pioneers and self-made people, in which ambition is praised from the first moment we enter school until we enter the competitive world of free enterprise, we cannot imagine that any good can come from giving up power or not even desiring it. The all-pervasive conviction in our society is that power is a good and that those possessing it can only desire more of it.”

And yet, the downward mobility of Jesus is the way of powerlessness:

This is not good news for white Christian Americans. This should disturb us. “Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God. We are called to speak to people not where they have it together but where they are aware of their pain, not where they are in control but where they are trembling and insecure, not where they are self-assured and assertive but where they dare to doubt and raise hard questions; in short, not where they live in the illusion of immortality but where they are ready to face their broken, mortal, and fragile humanity. As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, [so that] we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God’s love and empower them with the power of God’s Spirit.”

What do we have in mind when we hope our children have a ‘good life?’ Are we hoping that the first will be last and the last will be first? Are we hoping for a society where what you do doesn’t define you? Are we dreaming of a community where there is no spotlight for the spectacular? Are we inspiring lives of love rather than power?

Upward mobility aims for comfort, downward mobility leads to contentment. Downwardly mobile people ask themselves, “Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?” Downward mobility is heart work, and it requires effort and discipline to resist the temptations of being relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Ultimately, though, downward mobility leads to the good life we all dream for our children and ourselves.

“For I came,” says Jesus, “not to be served, but to serve, even giving up my life for others to gain theirs.” Are you able to drink my cup?