Not So With You
Mark 10: 35 — 45
The setting for our text follows an intense encounter with a man asking Jesus what he must do to ensure he inherits eternal life with no hitches on the way. The message from Jesus to him, and to all his would-be followers was:
"You can follow me into eternal life but not without the right attitude that
all things and all possessions are actually God's — you have the use of them only as a gift from God and not as of right. If material possessions mean so much to you that you can't follow me, you had better get rid of them!"
In the present text Jesus goes on from possessions to status, authority and power. His teaching is, again, clear and demanding, yet sensitively presented. We should note that in the few verses preceding our text, Jesus again predicted his death. This is, we recall, his last journey to Jerusalem. He loved the city of Jerusalem and the High Festivals of Israel. The Gospel account reflects both his joy and his sadness as they all move towards the place where the final events take place.
Some Notes on the Text
Verses 35 — 40
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."
"What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.
They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."
"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"
"We can," they answered.
Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with,
but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."
The text does speak for itself. However due to changes in culture and custom, we need to paraphrase and comment to bring out some of the hidden understandings which, though obvious to those present, could be misunderstood by us today.
The scene opens with James and John (the Sons of Thunder, Jesus called them), waiting their chance to quickly say something to our Lord without the rest of the twelve hearing. Their request is something like: "Rabbi, we want you to agree to do a favour for us, exactly as we ask". Our Lord, ever the tactician, replies, "Well, don't you think you had better tell me what it is before I can make a promise to you."
Catching the moment, the two brothers come out with what is on their minds. "When you take up your throne of power and dominion, let us sit each side of you." This, of course, is preposterous and utterly absurd, but the response of Jesus is very composed: "You have no idea what you are asking. Will you be able to persevere when you have to undergo all the same suffering I endure?"
Supremely confident in their own ability, the two disciples give an instant and emphatic reply, "Oh yes we will!" Jesus calmly reflects for a moment and then accedes: "All right, you shall endure the same suffering as I do. However, the matter of allocating positions of honour is not for me to decide. What my Father has determined is not to be questioned. I must affirm his appointed order and not even begin to think of altering it."
Gerard Sloyan has a valuable comment on this text:
Jesus is quick to point out that he who desires the end desires the means, but of the latter they are totally ignorant. He is already taking a draught of the cup of suffering. Will they be equal to it'? Can they endure being literally drowned in pain? Their confidence is answered with the prophecy that they shall have their wish.
Jesus promises grief and tribulation like his own. He cannot so readily dispense glorification, for like the day of his parousia, it is a matter hidden in the eternal counsels. Only the Father knows how he means to reward the various players in the drama of salvation.
(Note: "parousia" - second coming)
We need to remember that the reference to baptism (in the text) by Jesus had a slightly different application from our use of the term (though obviously connected). Jesus meant, "Can you be submerged in the hatred, pain and death which I suffer?" When they insist they can, Jesus approves and prophetically declares they shall! He did not however necessarily imply that
they will suffer martyrdom.
The language of those times which St Mark used did not mean it that way. In fact, during the next 300 years, the first Christians suffered the most terrifying forms of martyrdom. Thus it was the early Church which bore witness to our Lord's prophecy. We have no sure evidence of how James and John in our text died. Our equally reliable sources seem to conflict a little in this matter.
Verses 41 to 45
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.
Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
If anyone had a right to be indignant, it was, of course, our Lord. As is his custom as he trains his "disciples", he uses the opportunity to drive home a subject they have already covered in their intensive training.
The reaction of the ten to James and John is so very human: they exaggerate their indignation as though it were pure piety. Somehow Jesus has to deal with two factions who are equally at fault.
J. C. Ryle has a helpful explanation:
It seems that the ten were much displeased with James and John, because of the petition which they made to their Master. Their ambition and love of pre-eminence were once more excited at the idea of any one being placed above themselves. Our Lord saw their feelings, and like a wise physician proceeded at once to supply a corrective medicine. He tells them that their ideas of greatness were built on a mistaken foundation. He repeats with renewed emphasis the lesson already laid down in the preceding chapter: "Whosoever of you will be the chiefest shall be servant of all." And He backs up all by the overwhelming argument of His own example: "Even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." (See note below)
Let all who desire to please Christ watch and pray against self-esteem. It is a feeling which is deeply rooted in our hearts. Thousands have come out from the world, taken up the cross, professed to forsake their own righteousness and believe in Christ, who have felt irritated and annoyed when a brother has been more honoured than themselves. These things ought not so to be. We ought often to ponder the words of St. Paul: "Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves" Philipp. 2: 3.) Blessed is that man who can sincerely rejoice when others are exalted, though he-himself is overlooked and passed by!
Above all, let all who desire to walk in Christ's steps labour to be useful to others. Let them lay themselves out to do good in their day and generation. There is always a vast field for doing it, if men have the will and inclination. Let them never forget that true greatness does not consist in being an admiral, or a general, a statesman, or an artist. It consists in devoting ourselves, body and soul and spirit, to the blessed work of making our fellow men more holy and more happy.
Note: The remarks of Quesnel on this passage are worth reading. He says, "The ambition of clergymen is a great scandal in the Church and is frequently an occasion of emulations, enmities, divisions schisms, and wars; of all which the displeasure of the Apostles gives us an imperfect shadow and resemblance. If Apostles, trained up in the school of humility and charity, are not free from this vice, what effects will not ambition produce in souls wholly immersed in flesh and blood, which have no motion but from their passions, no law but that of their own desires?
"Men strangely forget themselves, when, as a ministry appointed only for the sake of heaven, they are contending with the great ones of the earth in haughtiness and grandeur. It is very difficult to support equally the double character of a spiritual pastor and a temporal prince; and to join humility with grandeur, meekness with dominion, and the constant application of a pastor with the care of secular affairs.
"The greatest prelate in the Church is he who is most conform able to the example of Christ, by humility, charity, and continual attendance on his flock, and who looks on himself as a servant to the children of God."
The sayings captured in writing by St Mark in verses 44 and 45 are of particular interest, and extend the unique concept of our Lord's teaching: "If you want to be great, serve!"
Gerard Sloyan has a helpful note:
The next two sayings are parallels to the first, though if anything even more strongly worded. A slave (doulos) is much lower in the social scale than a servant (diakonos); his submission is total. The mission of the Son of Man consists precisely in his serving, which means paying a ransom price with the gift of his life. The Jewish world knew both brigand-age and the holding of hostages in warfare. Our Lord speaks of his life as profiting many, i.e., all, as in the sanctification of a multitude by the Suffering Servant. (Is. 53: 11) This verse of Mark, unique to him, contains the epitome of Christian faith in the vicarious redemptive death of Jesus. "Ransom price is a figure of speech, but the Master's declaration is unmistakable in its intent.
In his person, the "Son of Man" (a glorious apocalyptic figure in Dn 7) is one with the Suffering Servant of Is 53. He dies that a multitude may live. "Spoils" and "prosperity," that is to say glorification, will crown the completion of his mission.
(From The Gospel of St Mark, by Gerard Sloyan, Liturgical Press, 1960)
Once again Jesus imparts a critical understanding to which his followers must hold fast: "By all means desire to do great things, but do them in God's name to serve the real needs of people. Some of you will be given a desire to take the top positions, and that will be a holy thing to choose. But remember it must also be a desire to serve without looking for acknowledgement, appreciation, or personal gain. For even the one you follow came to serve in this way, and 'to give his life for the ransom of many' — to bring God and humanity together."
The Glenstal Bible Missal has a very fine statement summing up our passage:
The true disciple can aspire to only one thing: to share the passion of his master. As for the reward, it eludes every possible claim. God is free to do what he likes with his gifts. The Christian likewise will have his share in the condition of servant which was that of Jesus: that is to say, he will participate in the life and death of Jesus 'for others'. For true Christian greatness consists in serving, and not in playing the master. Such are the bases of government of a Church which is built up by the work of ministry. Ministry after the example of the Son of God who, like a slave, washes the feet of his disciples, and offers for the multitudes the Suffering Servant's sacrifice of atonement.
The two passages Mark 10: 17 — 30 and 10: 35 — 45 show our Lord dealing with the subject matter of two great foundation principles of the Kingdom of God: possessions and power. Jesus understands how hard it is for his followers to have a spiritual as opposed to a materialistic outlook. His gentle approach encourages us to review our attitudes without fear, and to seek God's help to measure up. Only then will we reflect the true image of God's Kingdom which should shape the world about us instead of it being the other way around. That is one of the things he taught us to pray about
every time we attend worship, or hold it in our homes, for he taught his disciples,
"When you pray, say:
Our Father in Heaven
Hallowed be your name
Your Kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven….."