It turns out that Peter is not the only one of the disciples who can get in over his head in conversation with Jesus. This time it’s brothers, James and John, who think they know what they’re talking about.
Though it isn’t included in our selection for today, James and John’s request comes right after another detailed prediction of Jesus’ upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. I can’t help but wonder what motivates James and John to choose that moment to talk to Jesus about reigning with him. Did they think he was speaking metaphorically about his suffering? How could they when he’s been so specific in each of the three times he’s talked about it? Did James and John have a burst of courage that is simply misdirected? Did they want to walk this road with Jesus because they believed that was on the other side of it was worth it? Or, were they holding onto the same old picture and expectation of the Messiah as a political figure and wanted to get in on the ground floor? We know that this is possible based on the exchange the disciples have with the resurrected Lord in Acts 1 (they ask Jesus if now is the time he will restore the kingdom of Israel).
R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark) believes that they were possibly just clinging to the parts of Jesus’ words they understood and liked, conveniently blocking out the rest of it. Craig Evans (Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary) provides an even more vivid picture of what’s happening. Evans describes James and John as only seeing the tip of the iceberg as they talk to Jesus about participating in his glory. They have no sense of the scale and the model of the way of glory that lies underneath the proverbial waterline. Jesus effectively tells them as much when he kindly responds that they have no idea what they are asking. And yet, even though they don’t understand the gravity of what is “lies beneath,” Jesus says that they will indeed join in the way of suffering; it is inevitable for anyone who follows Christ.
But then Jesus makes this very important comment that denies future glory as a reward for current suffering. He doesn’t want us to connect our suffering with any sense of paying, nor does he want his followers to choose to suffer here on earth so that they might earn status in heaven. Jesus states clearly that whatever is to come for us in heaven comes by the hand and will of God, who has prepared it for us. It is a gift, and if we want to use the language of reward, it’s a reward of belonging to Christ’s family. In these few sentences, Jesus has guaranteed suffering while also making clear that suffering is not a new form of works righteousness. The verb “prepared” is in the perfect tense, emphasizing that what was done/completed/established once by God has everlasting consequences and effect for us; in fact, we can think of our place in heaven as untouchable.
Then the conversation shifts to the repercussions for wanting to be great among the disciples. As is understandable, given our human nature and the disciples’ track record, they don’t like that James and John are jockeying for position because they know what power means: it means lording it over others. Power, when focused on personal status and benefit, truly does corrupt and make tyrants out of us. Jesus affirms their fears as the way things usually go in this world and their very real current reality (marked again by the use of the perfect tense for the verb “know”) in verse 42.
“But it is not so among you.”
If there were a catchphrase for kingdom ethics, R.T. France says this would be it. He refers to Jesus’ words here as the “sum of [Jesus’] revolutionary ethics.” As the Lord, Jesus tells them that lording power and position over others has no place in his kingdom. Abuse and mistreatment of any kind cannot be excused or accepted. In fact, the way of God is the opposite: “giving up” parts of one’s self and space in the world, or in our modern North American language, giving up what we think are some of our “rights” for the benefit, care and protection of others, is the norm.
Jesus makes this point by intensifying his statement. He first says that if you wish to be great, you must be a servant, then he says if you want to be first, you must be a slave. Great to first; servant to slave. The grammatical structure of Jesus’ words (the use of the subjunctive mood and future tense) underscore that this is a choice that the disciples (and we) need to make. Unlike the suffering Jesus spoke of before, choosing the path of servanthood and of raising others up in status and serving them as a slave does (by seeking the welfare of someone else as though it was your role in life) is a decision we make to live, we choose it as a witness to the way of God.
Because it is the way of Christ, as he says in verse 45. It is the decision the Trinity made and the second person lived through the incarnation (Phil 2). Jesus Christ is both the Lord and Master and the servant and slave of humanity. He came to earth as part of us in order to serve us, giving his life as the payment for our deliverance—including deliverance from the rat race, the battle for power, prestige, and position. Those are the things we are in bondage to, and like John and James only seeing the tip of the iceberg, what Jesus offers is a way of life that is much, much larger, lurking under the waters of serving and loving others.
It strikes me that James and John, by seeking greatness, were hoping to be put in a position where they could look down on others—whether they meant to abuse that position or not. Time and time again, Jesus speaks of reversals. His invitation here is not to be in a power spot to look down, but to be the shoulders that others stand on, the outstretched arm that helps make space for someone on the fringes to enter the center, the person who is happy to be a little smaller so that others can join in. We can do these sorts of things when we know our lives are like the iceberg… We might take up just a little space above the water and not demand much from others, but within us and underneath the surface, each of us has (the potential for) a vast and rich life with God.
The verses that are skipped between last week and this week are the third and final passion prediction in the gospel of Mark. This week’s passage is the second half of a consistent thematic pairing in each of the prediction narratives: Jesus teaching about service. There is no getting around how deeply tied his sacrifice and suffering is tied to the call to service.
- In chapter 8 (verses 31-9.1) Jesus talks about taking up our crosses and denying ourselves.
- In chapter 9 (verses 31-37), Jesus says we must become “last” in order to be “first,” modelling it by welcoming a child (without status or right or reputation) into the middle of everything.
- Here in chapter 10 (verses 32-45), Jesus repeats the themes: becoming great means getting low through service, becoming “first” results in raising up everyone else.
We’ve got a lot of euphemisms to justify our attitudes about what it takes to make it to the top. It’s a “dog eat dog world” and we’re all in the “rat race.” “Nice guys finish last,” and we’ve got to “look out for number one!” After all, “it’s every man for himself” and you’ve got to be “cutthroat,” an “alpha,” to get what you want from life. Leaders say, “you’re either on the bus, or you’re getting run over by the bus…” and people who are meek are described as “door mats.” On all of these paths, people are either commodities or obstacles. The end position for successful participants is one of power, lording greatness over others, feeling untouchable. “But it is not so among you,” Jesus says. And he didn’t just say it, he lived and died it so that we could be free from the need to be great over others. We can become great and participate in his glory by being like Jesus, who was a servant and slave, committed to the flourishing of the whole world.
I listened to the podcast Throughline’s episode on chaos recently. One section of the show included an interview with historian Rutger Bregman about a real-life Lord of the Flies scenario in the 1970s on an island near Tonga; spoiler alert: it turned out nothing like the novel. Bregman made a larger claim that humanity’s civilizations were built on cooperation, not competition: among nomadic hunter/gatherers, it was actually the friendliest—not the cutthroat—who survived and passed on their friendly ways to the next generation. Eventually, they collectively built civilizations that helped more and more of them survive and transitioned from nomads to communities. This is God’s design for shalom, seen in human history. Bregman makes the argument that if there were despots and tyrants among them, the community stepped in and protected the whole group from being destroyed by the impulses of an individual. Even in general revelation/natural theology we see that “greatness” which tramples on others is a part of sin, not God’s will and design.
If you’re interested, you can listen to the episode (or read the transcript) here: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/977526130
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 17, 2021
Mark 10:35-45 Commentary