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Words: Earl Bowman Marlatt (b. May 24, 1892; d. June 13, 1976)
Music: Beacon Hill, by Harry Silverdale Mason (b. Oct. 17, 1891; d. Nov. 15, 1964)
Note: Earl Marlatt joined the faculty of his alma mater, Boston University, in 1923. In 1926, a service of dedication was planned for the students of its School of Religious Education. Professor Marlatt had preached on Matthew 20:22 the Sunday before, and provided his hymn on the text, for the service a few days later. Printed in leaflet form, the six stanzas were simply entitled “Challenge.”
Harry Mason had been a graduate student at the school several years before. He had composed the tune Beacon Hill for a song he entered in a contest. The song didn’t win, but Marlatt remembered the melody, and used it for the new hymn. (Beacon Hill, in Boston, was at one time the location of the Boston University School of Theology.)
Earl Marlatt said that two experiences had inspired the writing of the hymn. One had been a series of lectures he had attended on the Gospel of John, in which the speaker, Marcus Buell, referred to the stirring question of the Lord in Matthew 20:22 (KJV), “Are ye able…?” The other, a couple of years later, was his attendance at the Passion Play at Oberammergau. He said:
“Somehow those two moments got together when I was asked to write a hymn of self-dedication for the School of Religious Education. The words came so spontaneously to the music of a tune Harry Mason had already written that the text seemed to write itself.”
The biblical incident, and the question on which the hymn is based is recorded by both Matthew and Mark.
“Then [Salome] the mother of Zebedee’s sons [James and John] came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’ She said to Him, ‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered and said, ‘You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’ So He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.’” (Matt. 20:20-23; cf. Mk. 10:35-40)
The Lord Jesus had just described what awaited Him in Jerusalem–betrayal, scornful mockery, scourging, and crucifixion (vs. 18-19; cf. 26:39, 42). But, in their zeal, the brothers seem to be looking forward to the eternal glory to come, without considering the sacrifices they would have to make in the years ahead. They wanted the crown but had forgot the cross.
Would they be willing and able to face the kind of experiences that lay ahead for the Lord? The two hastily and naively say, “We are able.” But not long after, in Gethsemane, when Christ was betrayed and arrested, “All the disciples forsook Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56).
The Lord declares that James and John will indeed follow Him on the path of suffering. The death of James is described in Acts 12:1-2. John may also have suffered a martyr’s death at the end of the first century. That is not certain, but we know that he suffered exile on the isle of Patmos (Rev. 1:9). As to Salome’s request, Jesus simply tells her that those decisions will be made by His heavenly Father.
Dr. Marlatt’s hymn has been embraced and rejected a number of times over the years. There is definitely a problem with it. As I point out in the Wordwise Hymns link, Marlatt seems to have missed the irony in Jesus’ words. The thought behind the words seems to be, “You may think that you are able, but in yourselves, you are not.”
The proper answer to the Lord’s question is, “No. We are too weak. You must help us or we will miserably fail.” As Paul puts it, “Who is sufficient for these things?…Our sufficiency is from God” (II Cor. 2:16; 3:5). Christ says to us, “Without Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Marlatt’s “sturdy dreamers” seem much too jolly and self-assured about what lies ahead.
If we are not daily conscious of our own weakness and fallibility, if we are not constantly appealing to the throne for “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16), we are in grave danger of faltering, and of dishonouring the One we seek to serve. In my view, this hymn should not be used without careful teaching and explanation.
CH-1) “Are ye able,” said the Master,
“To be crucified with Me?”
“Yea,” the sturdy dreamers answered,
“To the death we follow Thee.”
Lord, we are able. Our spirits are Thine.
Remould them, make us, like Thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
A beacon to God, to love and loyalty.
CH-6) Are ye able? Still the Master
Whispers down eternity,
And heroic spirits answer,
Now as then in Galilee.
1) Do you see the problem with this hymn? Is it enough, in your view, to refrain from using it?
2) Is there a place for self confidence, and a recognition of personal abilities, in the Christian life? (How would you keep that in balance with dependence on God?)