35 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.’36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But 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?’ 39They 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; 40but 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.’
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Translation: And James and John, sons of Zebedee, come to him, saying to him, "Teacher, we desire that whatever we might ask you, you might do for us." But Jesus said to them, "What do you desire that I might do for you?" But they said to him, "Give to us so that we might sit, one into your right hand and one into 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? and to be baptized by the baptism I am baptized with?" But they said to him, "We are able." But Jesus said to them, "The cup which I drink you will drink, and the baptism which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or my left hand is not mine to give, but to those it has been made ready."
When the ten heard, they began to be indignant concerning James and John. And Jesus called them (and) said to them, "You know that the ones seeming to rule the nations lord over them, and their great ones tyrannize over them, but it is not so in you. But whoever might wish to become great in you will be a servant of you. And whoever among you might wish to become first will be slave of all. For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Background and situation: Our lection follows immediately upon Jesus' third statement of the passion (10:32-34). Three times now, Jesus has told the disciples that he will suffer and die.
As the stories move from one to another, the geographical setting keeps moving further south, toward Jerusalem. As Jesus and his followers move further south, the instruction becomes more and more narrowly focused on the leadership core of the Jesus movement.
In the first passion statement (8:27-38), Jesus had spoken to both the crowds and the disciples in the north of Galilee. In the second (9:30-37), he is further south in Galilee and speaking now only to the disciples. In the third (10:32-35), his focus narrows further and he speaks only to the Twelve.
The second passion statement had been followed by the disciples' embarrassment at having been busted over talking among themselves as to which one of them was the coolest and best. Jesus tells them he's going to die, and they were arguing about status? Cluelessness, thy name is disciple!
Hierarchical thinking: This third passion statement is like unto it. Jesus tells them he's going to die, in greater detail than before, and James and John respond by trying to angle for places of "glory" next to King Jesus. He'd already told them that anyone "who wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (9:37), but it's as if James and John cut class that day and missed it. The disciples' continual angling for position and status betrays them. They continue to presume a hierarchical leadership structure.
James and John's request--"Teacher, we desire that whatever we might ask you, you might do for us"--usually provokes some knowing snickers when it is read among pastors. If ever there was a "prosperity gospel" request--"what's in it for me?"--that one is it.
Mark would not deny that there are benefits to "following on the way" and living out the mission of Jesus. That, after all, is the true way of life. Looking out for the self first, however, expresses a worldview which contends against the "way" of Jesus. The way of Jesus is all about service to others, not service to self. Paradoxically, it is in "losing" that one truly "wins." It is in service to others that true life is found.
Mark does not explicitly reject "glory." Jesus had been seen in "glory" at the Transfiguration in chapter 9 (2-8). "Glory" has also been mentioned in 8:38, when Jesus will come in the eschatological parousia "in the glory of his Father." Mark is not against "glory" per se. He does insist, however, that there is no resurrection without cross, no exultation without suffering, no life without death.
Baptism and cup: Jesus responds to James and John with both patience and openness: "What do you desire that I might do for you?" When they tell him that they want to sit "one into your right hand and one into your left, in your glory,"
Jesus tells them they don't "know"--oidate--what they are asking. He spells it out: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? and to be baptized by the baptism I am baptized with?" The reference to "cup" looks ahead to the "cup" at the Last Supper. The reference to baptism looks back to Jesus own baptism in the Jordan. Baptism and "cup" form the bookends of Jesus' mission and life.
The symbol of the "cup" is mixed in the Old Testament. In some passages (Ps. 74:9, Is 51:17-22, Jer 32:1), "cup" refers to suffering. In others (Ps 22:5; 115:4), "cup" is a symbol of joy. The "cup" of Jesus is both--that is, the way of Jesus is both suffering and joy, but the reference here is primarily about suffering.
Similarly, baptism. The word baptizo means "immersion." Hence, it may also be said that Jesus' baptism is about "immersion" into the daunting and overwhelming realities of life. (One might note, as well, the sacramental associations. Baptism, obviously, refers to baptism, the "cup" to the eucharist. Mark may be also working toward increased understanding of the sacraments in his community, c. AD 70.)
The verbs are present indicatives, indicating that Jesus is already living the baptized life which is shown forth in a mission on behalf of the bereft that will lead to suffering and death. There, on the cross, he will be attended "on his right hand and his left" by two bandits, two rebels against Rome.
Jesus is the model of faithful discipleship in Mark. He leads the "way" which his followers are to emulate. A servant is not above his master! That Jesus ends up humiliated and suffering in the company of society's dregs is, again paradoxically, the true path that leads to life.
"We are able": James and John say, perhaps comically, perhaps ironically, perhaps honestly: "We are able." These disciples are nothing if not bold--boldly wrong, but bold nonetheless. Peter will be similarly resolute (14:29) when he proclaims he will never deny Jesus, then promptly does.
Again, Jesus is patient. He affirms that, yes, they will be baptized and they will drink the cup he drinks. Granted, he tells them that they don't really know what they're talking about, but, despite that, they will suffer as he does, and they will also enter into his glory. (The verbs are future tense.)
The other ten of the Twelve react with indignance. One might wonder at the motivation for their indignance. Were they genuinely upset because James and John were misconstruing their mission?
Possibly. In his instruction, Jesus has moved from crowds to disciples to the twelve. At each step, the "denseness" of the twelve becomes ever more telling and obvious. It might not be surprising if Jesus finds the inner circle of the twelve--Peter, James and John--to be particularly lacking. In the case of this week's reading, it's so bad that even the rest of the clueless were offended!
Or were the other ten simply jealous that James and John were angling for positions they desired for themselves? This also is possible, in which case the other disciples don't come out looking any better than do James and John.
There is another way: Jesus "calls" them--proskalesamenous--to him. They are already right there, of course, so, in specifically using the word proskalesamenous, Mark is telling us that Jesus is making an important appeal to them.
At the "call" of Jesus, his disciples are to follow. What are they to follow? They are not to follow the way of heirarchical power, but rather the egalitarian way of Jesus:
"You know that the ones seeming to rule the nations lord over them, and their great ones tyrannize over them, but it is not so in you. But whoever might wish to become great in you will be a servant of you. And whoever among you might wish to become first will be slave of all. For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Earlier, Jesus had said that James and John did not "know" what they were asking when they asked to sit at his right and his left in glory, but now he says that they do "know" what they can see with their own eyes: hierarchical power rules by domination. The secular powers--ton ethnone, the Romans--"lord over" others and oppress them. (Such a direct attack on Roman power is unusual.)
Hoi dokountes arkein should be translated "the ones seeming to rule." Dokountes is based in dokeo, from which we get "docetism," the heretical belief that Jesus only "seemed" to suffer and die, but didn't really. Here, it is used to refer to those who "seem" to rule by "lording over" others.
Katakurieuousin is built on the word kurie, or "lord." Those seeming to rule do so by "lording over" others, by relying on status, by looking down their nose at those lesser on the totem pole than they. The early Christians would have known: "Lording over" is not following the Lord!
Jesus refers to this style of leadership twice. Obviously, he is emphasizing the point. Not only do these secular rulers "lord" it over others, they also "exercise excessive authority"--katexousiazousin. The root is exousia--power, authority--to which is appended the prefix kata, meaning, in this case, "over." The rulers--who else but Rome?--exercise excessive authority over people. They are tyrants.
"But it is not so in you," says Jesus. Hierarchical, top-down power is not for the followers of Jesus. The present indicative indicates present reality. Freedom from hierarchical power is not something to which they should aspire in the future, but something which is expected right now.
As he had spoken twice about the secular rulers, he also speaks twice about the nature of leadership in the New Community. Whoever might wish to "become great"--megas genesthai--must be your servant. Whoever would wish to "become first"--genesthai protos--must be "slave of all."
Jesus doesn't dispute the idea of greatness, but radically redefines it from hierarchical power to "servant power." Authority is fine, so long as it derives from serving others. Expressions of dominance and oppression--(you may supply your own contemporary illustrations)--deny everything that Jesus represents.
Note, too, that those who are "great" are "your servant"--literally "servant of you." In other words, those among you who serve the cause, further the movement, live the way, build the church, are "great."
The superlative of "great" is exceeded, however, by "first." To be "first" is even higher than "great." How do you get to be "first"? By being "slaves of all." Serving the church is great. Serving all is even better.
This is, after all, what Jesus himself did when he "gave his life a ransom for many." "Many" is a way of saying "an exceedingly great number" or even "all". In his death on the cross, Jesus was the "slave of all," who gave his life to buy all back from slavery. (Lutron, or "ransom," was originally a commercial term referring to money paid to free a slave.)
Slaves are not above their master! Those who would follow Jesus are to actually follow him. This means doing as he did, giving of one's self to be "slave of all."
Granted, it's weird. It goes against every instinct. The process of human evolution, thus far, has favored the strong, the powerful, and the paranoid. These are our own "default positions." In a radical reversal, Jesus says that true life comes from denying one's evolutionary instincts and following instead the "way" of the True Lord.
Image: The Humble Servant, Roger Beattie