OUR STUDY for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost continues to center on the Gospel According to Mark. We find in our text that after Jesus had prophetically related for the third time that he was going to Jerusalem to be killed, the disciples were still focused on his being politically “lifted up”. They expected him to be ruler over Israel. Thus some followers yet maneuvered for positional advantage.
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
And they said to him, “We are able.”
And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)
Our author related again to the early church that as sinful persons before the judgment of God, even as followers we continually and stubbornly live in a state of self-delusion. If left to our own devices, we scheme and refuse to identify with our Lord’s concept of glory. To correct this error in opinion, we need only turn to the episode offered in the gospel lesson for this week.
Within the text, we find that Jesus’ cousins disregarded our Lord’s third prediction, and maneuvered to gain priority to future high rank in the kingdom. The foolish quest of James and John to be positioned on the right and the left, as advisers in the coming kingdom, we thus see them as couched in self-seeking ambition. This is first attested to by this text, in that the remaining disciples objected to the blatant approach. However, the protest of these other ten disciples was likely made out of their own jealousies, arguing over the two men who were using their familial position as a springboard to high office.
That the early church also later believed the request to be unseemly is clearly evidenced when we compare gospel texts. Likely written some fifteen years later than Mark, the gospel witness of Matthew deflected the blame for the two men’s foolishness, by including the character of Salome in the telling. Salome was the mother of the two men. In Matthew 20:20-28, we read that Salome, being rather a motherly power broker… is described as asking the question concerning political hierarchy. Thus the church of Matthew seemed to soften the ambitions of the two men… who were by then recognized as apostles and highly regarded as martyrs. Similarly, in later discourse, we also see that the Lukan gospel side-stepped the whole issue entirely by omitting the scene in its telling of the gospel message.
We clearly see that our Lord does not rebuke his cousins, but asks whether they are willing to do what is necessary to obtain the privileges. He queried whether the two men were able to drink of his cup. We note that by recalling this for us, Mark may have been tapping the memories of the learned within in his own congregation… reminding them of the bitter cup of Socrates as he drank hemlock… and also recalling the graceful Eucharistic cup wherein Jesus had said, “This is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.”
Jesus also asked if they were willing to suffer death by drowning in baptism. Here we clearly see that Jesus used the word, “baptism” as describing “immersion unto death”. The two men rashly said that they were able. Most authorities agree that this was a statement of foolish bravado. I tend to agree. Because of their foolish response, however, Jesus informed them that they would share the cup and baptisms, but the positions were not his to award. The stations had been laid aside by God for others. I dare offer that the scene portrayed here by our Lord could be that of his crucifixion, wherein two guilty persons were crucified alongside his own innocence.
Turned Upside Down…
The scene as we read it here, therefore, culminates with our Lord stating clearly that life in the kingdom turns the world’s value system on its head. For his followers, those who wish to be lifted to glory as his disciples, are to accept baptism and the lowliness of servitude. The servitude prescribed, however, take us to the extreme by our Lord’s use of the word “ransom”. Even as defined in modern terms, to pay ransom carries the connotations of kidnapping. However, here it means the willing substitution of due payment by the child of God. The term forms for us the theology of vicarious atonement… that Jesus made payment… he took our punishment upon himself! Convicted of death for our transgressions, Jesus made payment to God for our salvation. We must note that God had planned this course of action from the beginning! We thus are made at peace with God not by our own deeds, but by the willing acceptance of death on the cross by Jesus Christ. All we need to do is accept the gracious, free substitution… rather than scheming to climb the ladder for worldly position in either church or state.
Once we have accepted the gift, however, we then are called to live as persons empowered within the community of the church. We accept this baptismal grace in that we endure eternal life through the Holy Spirit, immersed in a symbol that participates in the reality that it represents. Through experiencing our watery baptismal death, we as the sinful experience spiritual death and then are lifted up in the world by God as the redeemed… living as a saved people before God. In reality, we thus experience the Resurrection! We become participating citizens in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus had taught then, and yet teaches now through the power of the Holy Spirit… that we are called to also work as a ransom. The Spirit comes to us in baptism and continues to mold us so that we may walk together forward in the world through Christ Jesus our Lord. The church is therefore called to spend ourselves… to serve, and not to be served. We are to give of our lives in ransom fashion for the salvation of others! We thus dare proclaim the gospel. We as modern disciples, who are made the church through baptism, are freed to joyfully answer this graceful commission. Thanks be to God! It is just and right so to do.