Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Mark 10:35-45, The Message or Mark 10:35-45, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, "."
Perhaps the authors of the Lectionary have gotten tired of hearing Jesus lecture us on the topic of his impending betrayal, arrest, degradation, brutal execution and rising again, but omitting Verses 32-34 completely removes the context for appreciating the shocking display of stupidity and arrogance by James and John. Jesus has just said, "The Romans are going to kill me in a way that they have perfected through practice to cause the maximum possible amount of shame and pain for the longest possible time." And James and John then ask, "Well, after that's all done with, could you give us the best seats in Paradise?"
Personally, I don't put much stock in James and John's response that they are able to share the fate of Jesus (drink his cup; share his baptism). Their initial question has already demonstrated a profound lack of understanding what Jesus is teaching them. Jesus' affirmation that indeed they will share his fate is not simply a divine ability to predict the future; he is simply stating the obvious - those who remain loyal and bonded to him will be treated by the Romans the same way as him.
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Page 193, foot note below) helpfully comment on the interpersonal dynamics in this passage.
As with other factions, the disciples are connected to Jesus, the central person, and not to each other. But James and John, who are connected to each other as brothers, disregard the interests of the others, and approach Jesus to request the highest status and the closest connection - at his side. This action provokes the envy and anger of the other disciples.
The request of James and John provokes the question, "How are followers of Jesus to relate to one another?" We are not blood relatives. For example, we are not literally brothers as James and John are. Does that mean we should treat one another as we treat everyone else who is not part of our family?
This is the issue that Jesus addresses in Verses 43-45.
It is unlikely that any of the 12 had servants or slaves in their own households. They were not wealthy enough. However, Jesus' teaching that:
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all
would certainly come as a shock.
They were already almost at the bottom of the social ladder. As Jesus' followers, they had expected to share in his glory and honour - to climb to the top of the ladder and beyond it. But it turns out that Jesus identifies his mission ("The Son of Man came ..."), not with the elites, but with those who were even lower than the disciples - with the servants and slaves.
And since servants and slaves did function within the family household, Jesus also says that his followers are to treat one another as they would treat their own family: meeting each other's needs without concern for pay back.
Aside. It may seem like a picky point, but please note that Verse 45 ends with:
give his life as a RANSOM for many.
A ransom is a political-economic exchange that pays for the release of hostages. A sacrifice is a ritual to facilitate the transfer of a favour from the Divine to the human. The Gospel of Mark does NOT describe the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
As I have written elsewhere, because Jesus was celebrating the Passover when he shared his last supper with them, the reference to wine being his blood "being poured out for many" (Mark 14:24) does NOT refer to the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins that is made in the Temple. It refers to the Passover lamb whose blood protects the households of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and enables them to escape their bondage in Egypt for the milk and honey of the promised land. Which is to say, the Passover lamb gives its life as a ransom for many.
Now you might say I'm just being picky, because whichever lamb it is, and whether it's a ransom or a sacrifice, Jesus' mission is still about obtaining our freedom from our sins. But I think that an open and fair reading of Mark does not support this view. Jesus is very clearly focused on political-economic issues, and practices healing and reconciliation in ways that do not require sacrifice.
Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, see link below, pages 192-193.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV)
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."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark 10:35-45 (The Message)
35 James and John, Zebedee's sons, came up to him. "Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us."
36 "What is it? I'll see what I can do."
37 "Arrange it," they said, "so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left."
38 Jesus said, "You have no idea what you're asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I'm about to be plunged into?"
39 "Sure," they said. "Why not?"
Jesus said, "Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. 40 But as to awarding places of honor, that's not my business. There are other arrangements for that."
41 When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. 42 Jesus got them together to settle things down. "You've observed how godless rulers throw their weight around," he said, "and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. 43 It's not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. 44 Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. 45 That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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