The readings for Sunday, October 18, 205, Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, are
Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; and Mark 10:35-45.
Human ambition to power rather than service is another difficult issue Mark includes in his instruction under the heading, “Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem.” James and John, two of the first four disciples chosen by Jesus, approach him with a request, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” The best hypothesis is that this pair of brothers were still in their teens and without much common sense. In the gospels their character indicates hot-headed impulsiveness, revengefulness, Luke 9:51-54, and ambition for power. Jesus still had lots of molding to do on them and the rest of his motley crew. Mark’s gospel more than the other gospels depicts these two and Simon Peter at their worst. Luke and Matthew, copying from Mark ten to fifteen years later, engage in a coverup of the disciples’ faults. Matthew blames the incident on the mother of the two boys. Instead of the brothers approaching Jesus, Matthew writes, “The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling before him asked him, etc.” Luke has an even better way of handling this issue. He deletes it from his gospel.
Even the phrasing of their approach to Jesus is childlike. They want his consent before they submit their request. On this occasion Jesus treats them gently, “What do you want me to do for you?” Their proposal, “Grant us to sit , one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” It is clear from Mark’s gospel that they were still thinking of a political/geographical kingdom which Jesus was to rule from Jerusalem, and they would have the two most powerful positions next to Jesus himself. Rightly Jesus replies, “You don’t know what you are asking,” because as yet they had no true concept of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. They would not understand until after his execution and resurrection.
Jesus asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” In the present context “cup” is a symbol of suffering and/or death. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus will pray, “Abba, Father, remove this cup from me….”
James and John, unaware of the tragic meaning of Jesus’ words, reply enthusiastically, “Yes, we can!” Jesus assures them of something they cannot at the time have understood, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Thus Jesus predicts their martyrdom. James was the first of the Twelve to die. He was put to death by order of King Herod Agrippa I in 42 A.D., in Jerusalem. Of John’s death we know nothing.
Now the sequel to the attempted power grab on the part of James and John. The other ten apostles were aware of the youthful ambition of their two colleagues and were annoyed. Jesus has to step in to soothe ruffled feathers. He calls them together, and says, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.” The fact that Mark includes this episode in his gospel indicates problems in the Christian community and debate over how Christian leaders exercised authority. The First Letter of Peter speaks to the same issue. The author writes, “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ…. Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.”
In words attributed to Jesus, Mark proposes the Christian approach to authority, “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” “Slave” sounds harsh, but in the context of the time of Mark’s gospel, when slavery was more common than daily bread, it is a more accurate translation than “servant.” Early English translations of the New Testament, due to anti-slavery movements already operating, tended to translate the Greek term “doulos” as “servant” rather than “slave.” Whatever the translation, service rather than lordship is the Christian approach. The great example is Jesus himself.