Comments and Observations:
They just don’t get it. Period. The disciples do not understand.
Readers of Mark know the by-now all-too-predictable pattern: Jesus predicts his death and so commends humble and sacrificial living and the disciples respond with an argument over rank, power, and position.
Even as readers we are getting a bit weary of this by now. Jesus tells the disciples what is on the docket for him and what do we get from James and John? Angling for cabinet posts in the new Jesus Administration. You can almost see the big cartoon bubble overtop of Jesus’ head containing just one word: **SIGH**
“Can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?” Of all the questions Jesus ever asked, this one deserved a careful, sober answer. It’s not a question to answer too quickly. Unless, that is, you happen to think the way James and John thought. They answered Jesus’ question with a very quick, “You bet we can!” That’s the kind of answer you give when you envision the “cup” in question to be a bejeweled golden goblet filled with good wine at the feast of Jesus’ inauguration as the replacement for the Caesar.
As is typical of the biblical/gospel mode of writing, Mark does not tell us the tone of Jesus’ voice when he tells James and John, “Yes, one day you will drink from it at that.” Jesus had every reason to be upset with these two for such a brazen request (and, again, this is now the THIRD time in a row this kind of thing has happened in recent days) but perhaps, as Jesus peered ahead into the dimness of the future, perhaps his answer to James and John was tinged with sadness. Maybe Jesus’ chin was quivering as he said it. Yes, they would drink from Jesus’ cup. Problem was, ONLY Jesus had a clue as to what that would involve. Knowing what he did, Jesus could not help but feel sorrow for what his dear friends would one day have to endure for his sake.
“You will drink it, you will be baptized in the way I will be baptized,” Jesus sadly replies. “But it’s not up to me to assign cabinet posts.” The story doesn’t end here, however. It didn’t take long before Bartholomew or Matthew or someone said to the other disciples, “Did you hear what James and John just asked Jesus about!?” And the ten disciples started to cut their eyes sharply in the direction of James and John, grumbling about such brazen jockeying for position (and anyway, THEY had been hoping for such honors themselves!). So Jesus huddles them together and says, “You just don’t get it, do you? Do you think that my ministry is about nothing more than merely re-treading the business-as-usual power plays of the rest of the world? Have I ever seemed interested in Roman-like power and privilege? I am all about servanthood. I came to serve not be served, and so if it’s greatness you’re looking for in the kingdom that is coming, you’d all best start grasping for the bottom-most rung of the ladder!”
“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Jesus asked James and John. “We can” they replied confidently, and in some ways we reply with equal confidence today. Every time we approach the Lord’s Table—whether that is every week in worship or once a month—that exact same cup of suffering and humility stands right before our very eyes. Each time we celebrate the feast, we grasp a cube of bread and intinct it in a cup or we eat the bread and then drink a small cup of juice. As we do so, we perform a sign that we believe in Jesus. We believe in his program. We believe in his gospel. We believe in his self-proclaimed path to true spiritual greatness.
But how often does our drinking of Jesus’ cup in this way transform our lives? Or are we about as likely as James and John to turn right around and, come Monday morning, start angling for power (in the world, in the church, in our business, in our family . . . wherever)? We affirm Jesus’ cup. But do we join Jesus in trying to seize the bottom rung of the ladder? Does that characterize our living? How would our day-to-day lives be changed if it did?
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
“You know how those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and how their high officials exercise authority.”
Yes, they did know. And so do we. Just cue Donald Trump. Cue any high-powered CEO or Executive. Cue lots of members of Congress.
“You know how those regarded as rulers exercise authority.” Yes, the disciples did know. And so do we. And like the disciples, we pine for just that kind of clout, muscle, cache, prestige, and authority in our own lives. We enjoy watching TV shows about powerful lawyers because we wish we had that kind of sway over things ourselves. We ingest politics like an addictive snack food because the next best thing to being powerful ourselves is to thrill to the antics, words, and deeds of those who do have their hands on the levers of power in our society.
“Not so with you” Jesus goes on to say, and like James and John and the others, that’s the point where we want to throw up our hands to say back to Jesus, “Now hold on there just a second!”
At its worst, the yen for the limelight is selfish pride on our part, pure and simple. But sometimes our motives are a bit purer, a bit more noble (or at least we can make it sound noble). After all, wouldn’t grabbing the reins of power for ourselves be a great way to influence the world for good? Think of how much kingdom work we could accomplish if WE were the ones passing the laws or adjudicating court cases. Just imagine all the bad behavior we could stamp out if the right people had the muscle to act as this nation’s moral cops. Sometimes having some authority to lord over others may just be the way to go!
Well, Jesus takes a different view. Now, of course it needs to be admitted that if a follower of Christ serves as a judge, a Senator, a President, or some other such powerful position, then of course that person’s faith would come into play in how he or she exercised the office. Christians who serve in positions of power can and must find ways to bring the kingdom perspective into play. But what Mark 10 tells us for sure is that even for these people, they cannot expect that it will be their lording (or even just wielding) of authority per se that will make the difference for the kingdom but only their conformity to the humility of Christ and his ethic of sacrificial service above all.
If that is true for even individual believers who are in positions of power, it is deeply true for the followers of Christ as a group. Jesus was not aiming for the kind of rough-and-tumble political kingdom that James and John so clearly had in mind in asking their question about the power arrangements in the coming kingdom.
So the question that every generation of the church needs to ask of itself is: Why do we so often seem to have aimed for precisely this in so much of church history right up to the present moment? Is it that we trust what we can see with our eyes—power politics and influence peddling DO work in this world after all—more than we trust on faith that Jesus’ vision of going a different way is the true path to the “greatness” of which Jesus speaks?
It’s interesting to note that Mark does not leave any temporal gap between Jesus’ grim words about his impending death and resurrection and the request from the Zebedee boys. In the Greek of Mark 10:35 we have the word KAI as the first word. KAI can most straightforwardly mean simply “and” but can carry with it the sense “and then” or “and so.” In any event, it’s the kind of word you use when stringing together incidents that followed closely one on the other. Indeed, it’s the same word used at the head of verse 46 when we are told that the other disciples swiftly got wind of what had just transpired between Jesus and the disciples. Clearly Mark is highlighting here the absolutely startling fact that despite Jesus’ repeated predictions of his own death, the disciples continued to miss the boat in order to focus on their own preconceived notions of Jesus’ ushering in an earthly kingdom in which there would be cabinet posts for which the disciples would have to compete.
Most people, if they are honest, admit that they like power, they like influence, they like perks. According to Robert Caro, in the mid-twentieth century, the United States Senate was a haven for power-hungry men in love with prestige. Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona was known to enter the Senate cafeteria and lay his cane on whatever table he chose to sit at for lunch. Often that chosen table would already have a clutch of secretaries or Senate staffers sitting there eating, but everyone knew that if Hayden laid his cane on your table, you had all better be gone by the time he returned with his lunch a few minutes later.
Most Senators also insisted that when they wanted the elevator in the Senate Office Building, they wanted that elevator IMMEDIATELY! To let elevator operators know that it was a Senator waiting, the Senator would buzz the elevator’s call button three times. When that signal was heard, the operator was to skip all other stops (even if others already in the elevator needed a certain floor) and pick up the waiting Senator without delay. Once when Senator McCarran of Nevada heard the car pass him by after he had rung three times, he turned on his heel, stomped back to his office, called the Sergeant-at-Arms, and ordered the hapless young elevator operator fired on the spot (which he was).
“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” If you wish to reply, “Yes, I can,” then it makes no sense to turn right around and devote your days to the kind of power-brokering and social wrangling that can often be seen in government, business, and elsewhere. Living that way after taking Jesus’ cup makes no more sense than when James, John, and ultimately all of the disciples, responded to Jesus’ prediction of his death by squabbling over power and prestige.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 18, 2015
Mark 10:35-45 Commentary