Does it seem like Mark's gospel is repeating itself? Didn't we just hear something about being servants and that the first shall be last? It's like being on a merry-go-round that never stops to let us off. The disciples had to hear this teaching again because they didn't get it when Jesus taught them earlier.
Today's gospel story occurs after the third time Jesus tells his disciples about his coming passion. After the first prediction (8:31), Peter objects and rebukes Jesus, after the second prediction (9:31), the twelve discuss who will be the greatest of them. After the third prediction, which is the most detailed one, we find the Zebedee brothers asking for favored positions in glory.
James and John approached Jesus innocently enough, "Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us" (v. 35). Doesn't this remind you of a child asking their school teacher to do something special? Status continues to be the issue. The problem was not so much that they wanted leadership. That was a good thing. Their understanding of status is what got in the way.
They were asking for the "highest places of honor" in Jesus' glory. They were experiencing cognitive dissonance regarding what Jesus' glory will look like. The disciples like the glory part, at least as they understand it. Jesus will return to rule the earth and they want to be right there with him. However, throughout Mark's gospel, Jesus' glory includes his suffering and death. Jesus said that plainly. The disciples seem to forget about that part.
Jesus tells the two that they don't know what they're asking not as a reproach, but as a statement of fact. They can't really know what's involved till the end of the story. Yet Jesus acknowledges that the time will come for
the disciples to suffer. By the time Mark's gospel was written, James had been killed by Herod Agrippa I in 44 A. D.
Drinking the same cup as Jesus and being baptized with the same baptism were synonymous with following Jesus. In the Old Testament, the cup was a frequent metaphor for the suffering of God's judgment by the disobedient. Jesus' acceptance of the cup means Jesus is accepting God's judgment against sin on behalf of others.
The baptism Jesus spoke of was idiomatic for overwhelming trouble--the image of being overwhelmed by submerging, deep waters. Being immersed in water is an image used as a symbol of distress. The psalmist cried, "Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck (Ps. 69:1).
As later Christians, we think in terms of the cup of the Eucharist and the sacramental waters of baptism--things we understand as joyful, positive things. However, Mark's primary point with such images has to do with the nature of Christian leadership and the desire for status.
James and John were pretty sure of themselves. They could certainly drink of the cup and be baptized with the same baptism as their Lord. Looking at this story, on one level the disciples are overconfident and smug. They do not understand the meaning of discipleship. However, looking back from the vantage point of the later church, we know that the disciples did become faithful witnesses and that most would be martyred. The disciples were, after all, capable. Jesus' death and resurrection finally opened their eyes. They learned how to give their lives as Christian leaders.
Awarding places of honor in glory was not Jesus' concern. God, the Father is the one who makes the seat assignments in the kingdom. The thing is, in Mark, the only ones who are on Jesus' right and left are the bandits that were crucified with him.
The other disciples were incensed at James and John. It was not necessarily that the ten were any more learned than the brothers concerning kingdom assignments. They just had not had the opportunity to approach Jesus for the same reason. Likely the other ten disciples were jealous and resentful of James and John getting to Jesus before they could.
None of the disciples had any idea just how much their perception of leadership would be turned upside down. They understood how leaders acted in their day, which was ruthlessly. However, Christian, servant leadership is something entirely different. The Romans may have been recognized as "rulers," but they were not the ultimate rulers. God's rule is the only one that will ultimately prevail.
Jesus said, "It's not going to be that way with you." The status quo models of status and self-esteem are going to be reversed, with our Lord Jesus as the supreme role model. If the disciples are to follow Jesus' example, it means becoming a slave. The one who wants to be first, is to be the slave of all. Slaves were are the very bottom of the social ladder. There was no honor or reward in working for others as a slave.
How does this influence our lives in the church today? Does this quote sound familiar? "We have seen the enemy and he is us." Pogo's words resonate with many of us, who like Jesus' first disciples, don't really understand what Jesus is talking about. And not only do we struggle to understand, we don't always follow even the simple instructions Jesus has given us, which makes us our own worst enemies.
But Jesus doesn't leave us to our own devices. Jesus "[gave] away his life in exchange for [those] who are held hostage" (v. 45). We who were slaves to sin, death and the devil have been set free!
It's kind of ironic, Jesus frees us from all the garbage in life, not so that we can be great as the world understands greatness, but to serve others as slaves of Christ.
It would seem that for Mark, our servanthood is not limited to the group -- your servant, but to the world, to all. This is stated earlier when Jesus tells the twelve, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
Matthew's parallels do not have "of all," but "your".
"The greatest among you will be your servant" (Matthew 23:11).
It would seem that discipleship in Mark has a greater emphasis on serving all people and not just those within the believing community.
The task for us as a church, as a congregation and as individuals, is to decide what kind of members in God's family are we going to be? Are we going to be ruthless people who want to climb up the social ladder on the backs of others? or are we going to be servants who go out of our way to treat our fellow human being with love, dignity and compassion? The choice is ours.
M. Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library: Mark, a Commentary.
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B.
Rev. Mary Johnson
Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark10x35.htm.
Mark G. Vitalis-Hoffman, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2641.