Digging Into the Text:
We perhaps thought that Jesus had settled the disciple’s argument about “who is the greatest” back at Capernaum (9:33-34). But, evidently, the closer they get to Jerusalem, and the more the disciples realize that something big is going to happen, and the more they want have a major role.
Jesus has just announced, for the third time, what was going to happen in Jerusalem, and it does finally seem to be sinking in. For the first time, the the disciples are described as being “astonished” and “afraid.” I think we get a clue as to what they were thinking by the fact that Peter packed a sword when they went to that final prayer meeting on the Mount of Olives.
Another indication of their growing, but still inadequate, understanding is the question the Zebedee boys ask Jesus. I love their opening line: “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” This seems like an astonishingly bolder equivalent of the line we’ve all heard or used, “will you do me a favor?”
And Jesus, patient as ever, goes along with it: “What do you want me to do for you?” Now, it seems that the request has matured somewhat. It’s not just a question of who is the greatest, but who will be at your right and left “in your glory.” This may indicate that the disciples may have accepted the suffering part of Jesus prediction, but have now latched on to the glory part, after he will rise. When that happens, the whole world will take notice, and they want to be right there in the spotlight.
Sure, there will be some hassle, some suffering, some struggle, but then the glory. Perhaps James and John were thinking about it like a high school athlete considers the daily training regimen for the team. They did not see themselves sweat-covered and exhausted; they saw themselves holding high the victory trophy. It’s the glory.
“You don’t know what you are asking.” With this blunt reply Jesus acknowledges that for all his openness about what lay ahead, they did not really get it. He uses two familiar analogies for his suffering, a cup and a baptism.
The cup may be a reference to the foaming cup of wine in Psalm 75:8. “In the hand of the LORD is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.” The cup reserved for the wicked of the earth is now to be drunk by the one person who is not numbered among them.
In calling the coming crucifixion his baptism, Jesus reveals the deepest meaning of baptism. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, it was a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” By submitting himself to John’s baptism, Jesus will “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:19). At the Jordan he stands in line with repenting sinners who need cleansing.
But in order to bring release from the captivity of sin for his human brothers and sisters, he must undergo another baptism, the baptism of his own death on the cross. In that act, he completes his work of redemption and opens up the cleansing fountain of baptism for all. It becomes the sacrament of our death and resurrection in Christ.
So Jesus asks these two eager disciples, “Can you drink that cup and undergo that baptism?” “Oh yes,” they answer. Of course, they don’t really have a clue. But Jesus ignores their lack of understanding and tells them that, yes, they will drink that cup and undergo that baptism. He is referring to whatever suffering they will endure as his disciples, the cross they must take up when they follow him. (Mark 8:34)
It’s important to notice that whenever the disciples raise up a theology of glory, Jesus offers a theology of the cross. It is the way to glory not only for Jesus, but also for his disciples. We would all like to bask in the glory of the Son of God, but in order to do that, we must first share in his ignominy.
But even then, Jesus tells them that it “is not mine to grant” who sits at his right and left in glory. To many Christians this comes as a surprising statement that can lead to the wrong conclusion, such as the idea that Jesus is in a subordinate rather than equal position to the Father. In his commentary on the parallel passage in Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner comments that the many instances of Jesus’ “ignorance” is a neglected doctrine in the church,” and urges that solid expository preaching will set it straight.
Bruner follows Luther in pointing out that the key is to understand Christ’s two natures. In his divine nature, he is one with the Father, but in his human nature, especially in his 33 years on earth, he shares our human limitations. There are things he does not know and special places he cannot grant to his disciples. Bruner says this divine/human dichotomy is similar to to the reality of the divine/human reality of Christians who are both flesh and Spirit, and even the Bible, which is both the word of God, and the words of human beings within their historical limitations.
But there is a bigger issue at stake here, the nature of the church. The disciples seem to think of themselves, and by extension, the church, in the same way that they think of the structures of society and government. It is another hierarchy where some people lord it over others. Instead, Jesus insists that “it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Instead of a race to the top, Jesus insists on a race to the bottom, the prize of servanthood.
This is not the first time we have met this teaching in Mark, which ought to signal its importance for Jesus and the church. Here, Jesus sets himself as an example, “The Son of Man came not to be serve, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s important to note that Jesus is not declaring that all hierarchies are invalid. He acknowledges that “the Gentiles” function this way, and suggests this will continue. “But it is not so among you.” This is about the church, which begs the question whether a hierarchical church is an oxymoron.
It’s telling that in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he is often struggling with exactly this issue. It seems that the church at Corinth was impressed by the strong leadership of those with spectacular gifts and charismatic qualities. These were not Paul’s gifts, not his way. Rather, he had expended himself in serving them as an apostle without pay and without recognition.
Service, not power; self-giving, not self-seeking, is the mark of true leadership in the church. This means that the true leaders of the church are often the most unheralded and seemingly insignificant folks. They are busy serving others rather than vying for position. This also means that when that day comes, we may well be surprised at who will be there seated at Jesus right and left hand in glory.
Preaching the Text:
1). We are at the brink of a national election of some importance to the future of our country. It would be refreshing if the various campaigns made it a point to emphasize the service which their candidate offers the country, but that’s not the way the “Gentiles” operate. Rather we must watch depressing ads in which candidates vie for power by putting down their opponent in a power struggle for the top.
The corrupting nature of power politics was well-understood by the framers of the constitution. They may not have all been orthodox believers, but they had imbibed enough biblical and historical wisdom to understand the corruption of power. Their plan was to erect a system of balance of power that would thwart the power of hierarchy.
Jesus’s words here should be seen as the constitution of the church, the counter-cultural kingdom of God. Servanthood is the primary quality of leadership, and self-giving is the primary attitude for which we look.
2). This is a glaring example of teaching from Jesus himself that the church has too often ignored to its detriment. From medieval Popes who vied with kings over territorial control to pastors who accumulated so much power that they became corrupted by it, the church has repeated this mistake over and over. The example we are to follow is not the Lord enthroned at God’s right hand, but the Son of Man who gave up his life for the world.
In some parts of the church, there is also a strong emphasis on male leadership and authority. Whatever we may think of the biblical arguments for or against this position, we need to consider it in the light of Jesus’ teaching here. True authority is marked by self-giving service. As soon as someone claims authority or status for any other reason, it should be immediately suspect.
Even when Paul claimed that wives should submit to their husbands, the ultimate principle of such authority was Christ’s self-giving love. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.” (Eph. 5: 25)
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 21, 2018
Mark 10:35-45 Commentary