Mark 10.35-45 | Trinity 20B
John Michael Gutierrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark
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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.” 38 But 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?” 39 They 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; 40 but 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. 42 So 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”Mark 10:35-45
The Gospel of the Lord
Our Sunday lectionary has been running consecutively through Mark 9 and 10 the past few weeks. Mark 10:35-45, the Gospel reading appointed for this 20th Sunday after Trinity, gives us a last look at the disciples prior to Jesus’ fateful entry into Jerusalem. And what a last look it will be! However, as we continue our journey through Mark’s Gospel, we, as readers, need to become aware of some “missing signage” on the Gospel lectionary road. Last Sunday the reading ended at chapter 10.31 while this week our reading begins at 10.35. Verses 32-34 would seem to have turned off the road! So, let’s read them “32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again”. On point, they repeat Jesus’ statement about his approaching death and resurrection. The first announcement about Jesus’ approaching death and resurrection at Ch. 8.31 was sandwiched between Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (vs. 27-29) and a volley of rebukes between Peter and Jesus (vs. 32-33). Later in Capernaum, Jesus repeats his announcement, adding a betrayal into the mix, terrifying the Twelve into silence (9.31-32). Until, that is, they begin arguing with each other about who is the greatest.
Now from an “information” perspective, we might consider that only one of these announcements would be necessary for Mark to confirm Jesus’ awareness of what was going to happen. But it seems the Gospel’s author presumes some misunderstanding when we hear Jesus say the same thing again and again and again. So, from Mark’s perspective, repetition is essential to developing our understanding of the theology of the cross and theological formation into a believing community. Each of the three announcements pivots around a specific feature of the suffering servant and servant ministry that plays off the disciples’ characterization. Each of the three have applications to the believer’s ministry.
Our larger scene opens with a solitary Jesus walking across the horizon. The camera pans out and we see the disciples following behind. The Gospel writer tells us tension, uncertainty and fear, fills the open space between Jesus and the disciples as they begin the climb up towards Jerusalem. We, as readers, already know that as the band moved geographically from Galilee south to Jerusalem, Jesus’ instruction has become more narrowly focused on the Twelve. But we also know they are following without fully knowing why. They are on the Gospel Road toward the cross. But only Jesus seems able to grasp the heaviness of what they are walking toward.
Jesus stops. He motions the Twelve aside to explain one last time: “See, we are going to Jerusalem…”. he tells them matter-of-factly about his suffering and death. And he tells them matter-of-factly about his resurrection. Jesus is fully aware of the balance of power arrayed against him – the religious and the political/military authorities (vs. 33-34). In Jesus’ stark announcement, we hear him come to terms with his fate. He is the Son of Man, the Davidic Messiah, YHWH’s suffering Servant approaching a perfect storm awaiting him in Jerusalem.
At least two of the Twelve, brothers, are trying to make sense of what’s happening around them. Like the Ten, they have traveled with Jesus as a part of his inside-out, upside-down ministry. Like the Ten, they still seem to have trouble wrapping their minds around what is ahead. The reader remembers from ch. 9.10, the Twelve don’t understand what “rising from the dead” means. Like the Ten, they flat out reject the notion of suffering and death as unacceptable, definitely unrealistic. So here two brothers pull back the curtain to reveal at least one idea. After all, kings and other rulers are held in honor and wield great power. They’ve been faithful followers of Jesus so shouldn’t they be entitled to share in some of his honor when Jesus “rises” to be crowned the Davidic messiah?
So in their best “cousin-like” request, James and John step up to Jesus “Rabbi, we want you to do for us whatever we ask you”. The rules are very simple: whoever sees the car first gets to call “shotgun” and sit in the front seat. They think they “see” Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem will be triumphant, regal so they’ve claimed the front seats. Travel-wise, Jesus and the Twelve were going “up” to Jerusalem but paradoxically Jesus knew they were actually going down. It’s too bad we can’t “hear” Jesus’ voice since I suppose the Gospel writer wants us to hear some suspicion in questioning their willingness to drink from his cup, submersed into the daunting, overwhelming reality awaiting him – suffering and death. He tells them this isn’t going to be “shotgun”. They will have a part in this. Not exactly the kind they were hoping for. Little do they know. From this affirmation to the brothers, the author wants readers to view Jesus, not as a singular Messiah who goes to the cross alone, but as the one who calls disciples to follow him in the way of the cross, as the one who calls disciples to move from a personal, safe space toward daring, submissive discipleship. Nonetheless, positions of honor are not Jesus’ to give. James’ and John’s “shotgun” call may have been motivated by thinking to beat out even Moses and Elijah whom they recently saw at Jesus’ side at the Transfiguration event (9:2-8). Ironically, the Gospel’s dramatic closure will unfold with rebels sitting shotgun on both sides of a crucified Jesus when he is “enthroned” King of the Jews (15:27)!
In some settings their “what’s in it for me” request might provoke snickers. But in vs. 41, the Ten narrowed their eyes into sharp slits in the direction of James and John, looking for daggers, grumbling about such brazen jockeying for position by calling “shotgun” so fast. Anyway, THEY had been hoping for the same opportunity themselves!
So for a second time in the scene Jesus calls the Twelve into a time out huddle in order to revisit the “servant” theme (vs. 42-45). Twice, He recently said, “The first shall be last”. And He has already redirected the disciples concerning their desire for greatness, telling them that to save their lives they must lose them. At this point, the reader could be thinking their jockeying for position in a supposed top-down structure has betrayed them. And you’d be right.
“Authority” in Jesus’ community is not in the Roman world’s power mold of the business–as-usual tyranny. “It is not so among you.” Jesus says. One of the awful effects on the disciples from living under the Empire’s dark shadow is the temptation to imitate its status and authority structure. Jesus tells the disciples straight off they simply are not a group that can organize itself according to a secular hierarchy. “You are different”. Once again Jesus points to a reversal of values and norms challenging popular assumptions about celebrity, power and status. He pushes matters to an extreme when he says that to be first is to be a servant of all. Servants were at the bottom of the social ladder. There was no honor or status in being a servant.
The long painful history of Christianity is a history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, status over the cross, being a leader over being a servant. Shared glory, honored positions, closeness to powerful people — these are the popular means for being somebody. If we can’t be the honored guest, the one with the power, then riding “shotgun” is the next best thing.
Conventionally, a useful servant role is not one of upward mobility. Authentic ministry usefulness is downward mobility ending on a cross. Servant ministry is not CEO and CFO authority but powerlessness and humility through which the suffering servant Jesus is manifested. The way of Jesus is service to others, not service to self. It seems to me, Jesus insists that authority is not transferred executively. Status and authority belong only to those who serve and suffer at Jesus’ side. Authority is fine, so long as it derives from serving others. When churches are expressions of dominance and control, they deny everything that Jesus represents.
To be great is to be a servant. That certainly challenges normal expectations. But Jesus is more than an exemplary servant. He also came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Exodus-Wilderness narrative was Israel’s great redemption story. This Gospel has repeatedly connected the ministry of Jesus to that multi-faceted redeeming event. Jesus has come to free Israel from the domination of Gentile powers and set the kingdom of YHWH in motion once again. A little referenced event from Israel’s sacred memory – Numbers 3 on the consecration of the Levites – provides important theological insight into Jesus’ final statement about being a servant giving his life as a ransom for many. After the first-born Egyptians died in the final event that led to Israel’s expulsion, YHWH consecrated the first-born of Israel to himself as a memorial of that deliverance. But now in the Wilderness, Israel is itself a covenantal community, a holy, priestly nation, a chosen people. In the Wilderness, the Levites have been set apart for the ransom of all the first-born in Israel. So, once in the Land their priestly presence will become a perpetual remembrance of Israel’s redemption and deliverance. To say it another way, the presence of Levites in the community continuously declared to all Israel YHWH has ransomed and delivered them through the redemption of the first-born. The Levites, then, take the place of the first-born, not for death but for service to YHWH. In a similar way, Jesus is put forward as a ransom not only for death but also for service. What YHWH wants is not the death of Jesus but his life, although paradoxically it requires his death! YHWH wants his obedient service, so he becomes, by his rising from death, the proclamation YHWH has reconciled Israel and the world.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat the bread then drink from the cup. We are participating in a sign that we believe the Gospel’s alternative to success. Every week we approach the Lord’s Table—where a broken body and cup of suffering sit before us. As Jesus was a servant who gave his life as our ransom, so we are called to be servants of one another. We do not need to push ourselves forward in order that we might become what our culture calls “winners.” Like Jesus the servant, we can be content to be what our culture thinks of as losers, because that’s what Jesus calls “servants.” Jesus’ suffering servant shows us a different way of measuring success. In Oprah-speak – good things happen to good people – by that measure Jesus was a failure. His life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross. No one would call dying by crucifixion a “good” thing. Certainly no one would call it a “success.” But the cross’s way of measuring success is not that of an entertainment celebrity. The path of kingdom ministry is following in the path of the suffering Servant who gave himself for us and calls us to be servants to others as he was a servant to us.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat the bread then drink from the cup. We are participating in a sign that we believe suffering is a part of discipleship. Jesus’s community is not spared from the pains of living in a world not our own. Our membership in the “suffer” club puts each one of us in a community that crosses over time and place to others who belong to the same Servant’s club. It’s a big club, with a vast table and good company, where there’s always room for one more.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we eat the bread then drink from the cup. We are participating in a sign that we believe in the Servant. Jesus’ way means to follow and serve, and it may even mean to suffer. He came to serve, not be served. And so if it’s kingdom greatness you’re looking for, you can start by calling “shotgun” to stand at the far end of the table. Unless, of course, you do decide to call “shotgun” for one of the seats next to Jesus on the cross. Either way, it’s your choice. You decide.
May the Lord richly bless you, My Beloved