By Allison Zbicz Michael
And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
The college admissions process in 2021 is absurd.
Between 1985 and 2016, the average SAT scores at the top hundred colleges went up by about 100 points—that’s a lot, and I’d wager the numbers are even higher now. SAT preparation classes have gone from nonexistent to the norm. College-level advanced placement classes were once an occasional “extra” on the resume taken in the senior year of high school, but a few years ago, more than 60 percent of applicants to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill had taken more than 10 Advanced Placement exams!
Pickup sports games in the cul-de-sac have been almost fully replaced by organized sports that kids can put on a resumé, despite the fact that kids probably learn more about negotiating and leadership from trying to organize their own game than they do from playing the games that adults have organized for them. It really is absurd.
And that was all before Covid threw college admissions into confusion, leaving students and parents to figure out new rules for a new admissions game. And we all know that it is a game, based as much in factors wholly outside of our control as it is on the innate aptitude of any young person.
In this context, there are many mothers — and fathers — in our own community who might identify well with the tiger mother of the sons of Zebedee, though instead of asking Jesus if their kids can sit at his left and his right hand in his kingdom, they call up the school principal to get their child into Honors Algebra or get in touch with their friend in the college admissions office to try to find the inside scoop on admissions to the desired Ivy League school this year.
I get it. We have all been bombarded with the message that there are only so many ways to live a happy, fulfilling life. We are told it requires a good college, a good job, a sufficient paycheck. Each university has only a set number of spots. Fulfilling employment opportunities are not limitless. Too many skilled manufacturing jobs have been replaced by machines, and if the last year has taught us anything, it is that most jobs done on a computer can now be done by people anywhere in the world that has reliable internet.
Is it any wonder that parents want to advocate for their kids? If we choose not to play this absurd game, but every other parent does, the question bubbles up from time to time– will our child be left behind? Parents feel stressed. Kids feel stressed. Something has to give.
Then the mother of the sons of Zeb′edee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
What strikes me on reading this is the mother’s preoccupation with what she sees as a scarce commodity — presumably she imagines that there are only two seats to the right and left of Jesus in heaven. She does not ask if they can be in heaven with him, but she wants them to have those seats — the ones that if they take, no one else can have. She’s treating heaven like a zero-sum game — if your kid gets into Princeton, mine won’t, she says, so I’ll beg and plead and pull whatever strings of social capital I have to make it happen. What matters to her is her sons rising to the top. If James and John sit on either side of Jesus, Simeon and Philip will have to sit a few spots away from Jesus. So what?
Jesus flips the question back to the mother of James and John — devoted tiger momma, he says, you really don’t know what you’re asking for.
The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Parents and grandparents — this is the time to ask ourselves whether is it more important to us that our child or grandchild get into a selective college or that that they serve others? Is it more important to us that they have a certain annual income or that they give themselves in love? Do we want for ourselves and our loved ones the things that can only be won by the clawing competition that pits us against one another? Or do we want the good that comes from giving and generosity of heart?
If there is one thing I hope our teens — and adults — take away from today it is that there is no admissions cut-off when it comes to living a truly good life. The whole of a good life, Jesus tells us, is loving God and serving others. Some may serve God after going to a top-notch university — but many more have given themselves by changing diapers at 3am or by dropping a meal off for a neighbor going through a rough spot, by helping an elderly neighbor fix something broken around the house, or by serving on the Altar Guild. The most generous people are often those who have very little to call their own and no fancy credentials hanging on their walls. Jesus’ closest friends were nobody of any note- fishermen and faithful women. They live good, happy, and fulfilling lives filled with the joy that comes only from God.
Saint James served in the fullest way possible. He was the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred. His birth came early into that life with God beyond the reaches of pain or sorrow. And though his life was short, it was a good life, one of the best. His martyrdom spread the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection far and wide. We know Jesus Christ today because the early martyrs like Saint James served, even unto death.
Some of you know that this fall, our family will be making a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James in the northwest corner of Spain. A few of you have told us that we’re crazy to brave sore feet and blisters along the nearly 500 miles. You might be right. We are not an especially athletic family—apart from a handful of longer hikes we have taken over the last six months, twenty-minute walks with the dog are about as strenuous as it gets for me most days. But a Christian pilgrimage is not just a long walk, and sometimes hard things are worth doing.
Pilgrimage is a practice of prayer as old as Christianity itself, of learning to rely on God and the hospitality of our neighbor to provide for what we need each day. The slow patience of moving one foot in front of the other is a remedy to our expectations of immediate answers to emails sent around the globe. Pilgrimage cultivates an openness to seeing God in the present moment, and it renews our hearts to serve. Above all it gives a distinctive space for prayer with others away from other distractions — I hope all of you will receive the fruits of those prayers we will offer for you each day along the pilgrimage road. Our family will not be giving in the same ways that we are here with you in person, but we certainly view this as an opportunity to serve others through prayer.
All of us are on our life’s pilgrimage, no matter what mundane or exotic task we have before us. Whatever it is, the Gospel lesson today reminds us that the best lives are those that look for ways to serve.
I know for many of you right now, it feels like your life hangs on that college admissions or that job application or something else that scarcity might prevent you from getting. We all know what it is to want something so badly we can hardly breathe. But none of the things that matter most in life have anything to do with competition or scarcity. The best things in life are gifts — God has given you hands, a heart, and a mind made for lifting one another up.
And that is very good news. You, friends, are not a failure if you did not make the team, or if your SAT scores are not quite as high as you hoped, or if you get passed over for that promotion, or even if you lose your job. No matter what anyone else tells you, you are not a failure in the sight of God, and your future is not doomed to unhappiness.
A good life, a blessed life, a happy life is being offered to you today — just look for the ways that God is calling you to serve. The specifics will look different for everyone. For St. James it involved literal martyrdom in the mission field. A good life is not always an easy life. Even our service as acolytes, soup kitchen volunteers, card-senders, builders, mentors, pray-ers, teachers, diaper-changers, chair stackers, and encouragers can call us to make challenging sacrifices some days. But serving is always worthwhile, and there’s no shortage of opportunity to serve — no scarcity of ways to live a good life, and whether you’re 7 or 97, you can follow God’s call and live it today.
The Rev. Dr. Allison Zbicz Michael is assistant pastor at St. Francis, Potomac, Maryland.