Today we have two great stories from Mark. The first is about Zebedee and Salome’s two boys. It presents to us questions about our own discipleship. The second is about the ten other disciples who believed that the two hot heads had taken advantage of them. It challenges us about the relationships we have with others. It is found both here in Mark and also in Matthew 20:20-23.
Because of the low social standing and bad reputation of the Christians in Rome, Nero scape-goated Christians for the burning of Rome to divert guilt from himself. One description of Christians from the period was that they were “a class despised for their abominations”. Peter was crucified, other Christians were covered in animal skins and torn apart by wild animals for entertainment in the arena. Yet others were used as human torches to light the streets of Rome. What tradition tells of us James is that he was martyred by Nero’s sword. John, on the other hand lived to a ripe old age, after being tortured in a vat of hot oil.
Patristic tradition has it that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and wrote the Gospel that bears his name in Rome about the time of Peter’s death. Tradition also says that what Mark wrote were his memories of how Peter adapted the stories of Jesus for the needs of his hearers and in no particular order. Here we have the third in a series of stories showing how the disciples were evidently incapable of coming to grips with what Jesus said about his expectations for himself and those who would follow him. Martyrdom is on the mind of the author.
As our text begins, these two “sons of thunder” were of the opinion that Jesus was about ready to launch his campaign for re-establishing David’s kingdom. They weren’t infected with the spiritual/physical dichotomy that still confuses us today. The Messiah they knew about would arrive with a well established game plan that included running the Romans out of the territory and ruling over a Jewish state that would put the Jews in what they felt was their rightful position of world domination. God promised. Order two more thrones while you are at it Jesus, not as big as yours but…. The glory they referred and had every intention of sharing was not eternal in the heaven but right here – right now.
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.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at 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, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 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; 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 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
This is the third time Jesus has told them, directly, what’s going to happen, that he is going to die, and each time they have missed his meaning entirely. Remember in chapter eight where Peter actually rebukes Jesus for talking about his rejection and suffering. Jesus responded by calling him “Satan.” As they continued on their way Jesus once again spoke of his coming betrayal and death, and rising again. They had a particularly difficult time understanding that last part. The disciples’ response was a lively argument, which didn’t escape Jesus’ notice, over who among them was the greatest. And now, in this tenth chapter, Jesus tells them one more time that he is going to Jerusalem and facing death. The disconnect between Jesus’ words and the next thing that happens is so dramatic that we’re tempted to think that a verse of the text must have gotten lost. Could Jesus have been any clearer about what was going to happen? We imagine the early Christian audience listening to the entire Gospel, and we assume that they must have heard the repetition three times of this terrible prediction. Yet here we have the disciples so into their preconceptions as to be deaf to what Jesus says. How insensitive could they be? André Resner, Jr., observes that it hasn’t made much of a difference that Jesus speaks directly here rather than indirectly through parables: either way, the disciples are left scratching their heads.
I guess it is possible that the disciples “totally get” what Jesus is saying. Charles Campbell observes that in that case, they are understandably afraid, and, rather than being power hungry, they react as normal human beings: they seek security. Campbell goes on to observe that humans have made many mistakes by reacting to fear and seeking security, even going against the values they claim to value most. We humans want to make sure that, no matter what happens, our place and our safety are secured; if we know that, we think we can handle whatever comes. But Jesus actually reassures the disciples in spite of their fear and offers them “an extraordinary promise: ‘You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security…. You will be faithful disciples even to the end.'” In any case, as Jesus himself observed, they had no idea what they were asking (v. 38b). C. Clifton Black points out the sad and sorry way their question (“we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”) echoes King Herod’s “rash” words to Herodias in chapter six (“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it”): “the Zebedee brothers,” Black writes, “unwittingly position themselves alongside the very rulers who execute righteous teachers.” As long as we recognize our own Zebedeean inclinations, it seems reasonable to be disappointed in their strategic plan for Jesus, their big picture for his ministry. Their religious imagination, it seems, has failed them. They’re letting the same old categories and assumptions that they’ve always had drive their aspirations, and just insert themselves into the places of prestige and power. Instead of growing closer to Jesus’ radical vision of the reign of God, Resner writes, “they prove that they had not left all when they followed him.
If however it was their cluelessness to which Jesus responds it was with a very difficult question: Are they able to drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism that he has received? Their response is embarrassingly quick: “We are able.” Of all the commentaries on this text, Marcus Borg is most effective at explaining something of the meaning of Jesus’ words in his own setting and in our lives as his disciples today. Both of these terms, “drinking the cup” and “baptism,” Borg writes, were “images for death.” And we of course know that Jesus is speaking of his own death, and that most of his earliest disciples are said to have been martyred (along with many other early Christians). Today we recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, the women missionaries killed in El Salvador, and any number of other martyrs who literally died because of their faithfulness to Jesus. But what about the vast majority of us today who long to follow Jesus faithfully, but will most probably not be killed for doing so? Borg speaks of this kind of dying as a metaphor with two meanings, both at the core of Christian faith: “a dying of the self as the center of its own concern” and “a dying to the world as the center of security and identity.” Self and world “are the two great rival centers to centering in God, and the path of transformation calls for a dying to both of them.” Borg goes on to describe “the world of conventional wisdom…with its preoccupying securities,” and a self that is likewise self-absorbed. This metaphor of dying, then, describes the process by which “the radical re-centering brings about a change so sharp that it can be described as dying to an old life and being born into a new life.” It happens to different people in different ways (and we don’t accomplish it–it happens to us), whether sudden or by a long journey, but it surely involves “surrendering, a letting go….” And here Borg points to the heart of the matter when Jesus caused so much trouble by challenging “religion accommodated to conventional wisdom and increasingly shaped by those who were the beneficiaries of conventional wisdom.” In Jesus’ own day and in our own as well, there is always the possibility that “religion becomes a legitimator of a way of life rather than invitation to a new way of life.”
So the disciples–and these were the ones closest to Jesus, among the first called, the ones he took up on the mountaintop–have got their minds on power, not on serving and certainly not on dying. Barbara Brown Taylor provides a wonderful reflection on power and its fragile and temporary nature: “Those who have it get to make the rules and write history, but they have to keep an eye out because power is slippery and those who don’t have it are always ready to yank it out from under those who do. There are only so many head tables in the world, after all, and the game of musical chairs never stops.” In a speech at a major party convention in the summer of 2008 we heard words that seem more apt for describing people who operate in God’s image: we are at our best when we lead by “the power of our example” and not by “the example of our power.” The power of Jesus’ example is one of deep humility—an example that we, like the sons of Zebedee, misconceive. The Zebedee brothers think the systems are good, but the wrong people are in the places of power; once they come into their own, alongside Jesus, everything will be fixed from the top down. How seductive is that dream! Meanwhile, Jesus is up-ending the head tables and paying far more attention to serving than being served. And that’s how Jesus moves the disciples’ focus away from their own ambitions: he tells them not to be like the Gentiles with all their lording over, their prestige and position and the bullying that come with them. Don’t be like that, he says. In fact, he says, “it is not so among you” (v. 43). (Isn’t the present tense wonderful there? Jesus’ religious imagination is working just fine.) The reign of God is so very different from our conventional way of doing things, and our conventional beliefs about what is best. Taylor writes: “This much is for sure, whether we can make sense of it or not, serving is how we will transform the world, not from the top down but from the bottom up.” That’s the power that God gives us in abundance, “the strongest stuff in the world: the power to serve.”
The word “even” (kai) is missing in the NRSV of this passage, but it adds an emphasis and clarity that remind us that Jesus himself modeled this kind of service, and this willingness to lay down one’s life in the process: “even” Jesus came to serve. In doing so, he has ransomed us, “the many,” setting us free just as a slave or a hostage could be ransomed and set free. In this sense, Jesus paid the price for sin. Christians speak a lot today about Jesus dying for our sins, or because of our sins, or both. We find (or take) great comfort in that belief. But comfort isn’t the whole message of the gospel, in fact, sometimes the gospel is quite dis-comforting. Lamar Williamson, Jr., reads a challenge in this text to “complacency and apathy” as we hear in the gospel a “no-risk offer” that helps us to stay on the straight and narrow. There’s more to it than that, he writes: “Getting right with God by coming to Jesus is not simply a basic factor in an orderly life. Discipleship will mean more trouble, not less. Though it may be palliative in some respects, following Jesus is likely to be disruptive in others. True discipleship is characterized by a costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an aging parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs, or any person whose situation elicits neighborly service at personal cost. Jesus came to serve and to give his life.”
But Today’s followers of Jesus, Zebedee brothers in our own place and time, hear the same call, and the same offer, that our ancestors did long ago. It will mean a change in our worldview and the values ingrained in us, especially in affluent and “powerful” countries and cultures. Along with Marcus Borg’s words about dying to self, this understanding of serving is something we can grasp and live out, no matter the cost.