Thought for the day
As such, ambition is not quite neutral. We are called to be ambitious, that is, to use our gifts, to inhabit our strengths, to be of real service. St Paul says, be ambitious for the higher gifts. It is not that ambition as such is harmful; however, in the common experience, ambition can be destructively egocentric and based on distorted motivation.
Set our hearts free, O Lord, that we may desire what you desire and love what you love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Third Time Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
Mark 10:32 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.”
The Request of James and John
Mark 10:35 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 baptised with the baptism that I am baptised 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 baptised, you will be baptised; 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.”
Mark 10:41 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 recognise 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.”
The teaching of this passage is and always was something of a challenge to the members of the church who are in leadership positions. As usual, Mark locates the teaching as a response to the prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection and that remains the literary context. At the Markan level, the social context, however, is likely to be the emergence, even in the early church, of styles of leadership at variance with the practice and teaching of Jesus. Mark, in response, makes an explicit link between leadership in the church and the mission and destiny of Jesus.
It is very likely that this scene is substantially historical, for two reasons. First of all, the later version in Matthew “protects” the reputation of James and John by portraying their mother as making the embarrassing request!? In other words the early church was uncomfortable with such an unflattering portrait of significant apostles. Secondly, it portrays Jesus as not being able to do something. The tendency of the New Testament as a whole is to increase the power and authority of Jesus. Any story bucking that trend is also likely to be historical.
Kind of writing
As before, this passage has a wider context on Mark 8-10 and a narrow context after the Passion Prediction in 10:32-34 (not included in today’s reading, but inserted above for convenience).
The arguments are carefully laid out in the manner of a chreia or anecdote, which explores the core values of Jesus. See overleaf for the train of thought.
Old Testament background
O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord! (Psa 116:16–19)
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Is 53:10–11)
I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (Psa 16:8)
New Testament foreground
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24–27)
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (John 13:12–17)
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5–9)
Verse 35 The demand is extraordinarily “open” and manipulative. They want a “yes” before the specifics, even though James and John belong to the inner circle. In Mark’s narrative, this takes place after the Transfiguration.
Verse 36 An equally open response.
Verse 37 The language is apocalyptic. However, in Mark “right and left” next occur at the crucifixion, which is surely an intended irony.
Verse 38 None of the disciples really “knows” until after the resurrection. Cup is a metaphor for consequences that must be accepted.
Verse 39 The imagery tells us that the destiny of Jesus is a fulfilment of his baptism by John. Here, Mark looks forward to the time of the church. In later Christian reflection, baptism was used for martyrdom (Tertullian, On Baptism 16; Anon, On Re-Baptism, 15; Origen, Commentary on Matthew 16. 6; Cyprian, Epistle 53. 4).
Verse 40 They disciples are unabashed; Jesus confesses powerlessness, which sounds historical (see above).
Verse 41 That they are angry is ironic, given their very own misunderstandings.
Verse 42 This would be very obvious from the local and national exercise of power in the Roman Empire.
Verse 43 The gospel reverses the value system of the world. There is indeed to be leadership in the Church, but it must be exactly the opposite of worldly power and glory.
Verse 44 This is borne out in the language of early Christianity.
Verse 45 A theological conclusion: discipleship must be based on the destiny of the master. It is important not to read later Western theories of redemption back into the phrase “for many.” A text of the time of Mark, talking of martyrdom, speak like this: These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honoured, not only with this honour, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. (4 Mac 17:20–21) In Aramaic, many is in contrast to few not to all (as in English).
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus had spent much time teaching his followers that discipleship was a life of service, a life giving oneself for others. In spite of that, James and John were thinking of what they could get out of it. For Jesus, for the apostles, and for each one of us, the glory of God is revealed when we allow God to work through us as we give ourselves for others. When have you found that you reach a fuller life and others benefit when you act in this spirit of service?
2. One of the great problems in a community, a parish or an organisation, is when you have some people jockeying for status and positions of power. The good of the group and the people it serves take second place to personal prestige. You have probably seen this happen. Perhaps you have also witnessed people with a spirit of service that allowed them to value the good of the group over personal rewards. Recall them and give thanks for their witness.
3. Jesus himself is the great model of this spirit of service. Think of the aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry that have inspired you to imitate his giving of his life for others.
Most glorious God, in Jesus you show us that your will is to save. Grant to us your people the boldness to desire a place in your kingdom, the courage to drink the cup of suffering and the grace to find in service the glory of your promise.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.