October 17, 2021
I had a friend who worked really hard at appearing humble. In public, he was always putting himself down, always declining praise when he’d done something good. But in private, it was a different story.
One time he told me of a particularly generous thing he’d done for someone we both knew. And then he said, “But of course, I don’t want anyone to know it was me. Jesus says to give alms in secret.” And I thought, “but you just told me.”
This same friend complained to me – privately, of course – when he didn’t receive an award for service that he was hoping to get. He thought the person who did receive the award “didn’t go above and beyond the call of duty” as much as he did, and wasn’t humble enough.
In reality, my friend was pretty proud of his humility. He didn’t understand that true humility comes from thinking less about yourself, and more of someone else. Real humility is the foundation of real greatness, particularly because it doesn’t care at all about recognition or glory; it only cares about the good of others.
Jesus has been teaching his disciples as they travel one last time to Jerusalem from Galilee. Some of the people following him surely think this will be the time when he restores the Kingdom of David, and leads Israel in a military rebellion against Rome.
Others are hoping he will help to reform a corrupt Temple and restore worship of the One True God to its rightful place in Jewish life. But Jesus isn’t about rebellion, or religious reform. Jesus has a completely different plan in mind.
Three times, Jesus has announced that he will go to Jerusalem to be tortured and killed. But on the third day, he says he will be raised from death. The first time he made this announcement was just after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ. It’s the first time Mark has used that word, “Christ,” since the opening verse of his gospel.
The second prediction of torture, death, and resurrection follows the Transfiguration. Now we are on the way to Jerusalem. A rich young man has just walked away sorrowful, because Jesus asked him to sell everything so he can follow Jesus.
Once more, Jesus tells his disciples that he must be betrayed, turned over to the Gentiles by the Jewish authorities, and killed. And after three days he will rise again. Mark tells us that the disciples are “amazed” and those who follow are “afraid.” (v.32) They still do not understand that the Christ isn’t about rebellion or reform, but resurrection.
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 is it 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 be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)
It’s ironic that James and John ask for places of honor immediately after Jesus has just told them how he will suffer humiliation and be killed. Ever since Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus has tried to show his followers how the word “Messiah” might not mean what they think it means.
Each time Jesus has predicted his own death, the disciples have experienced what’s known as “cognitive dissonance.” His words just don’t match their understanding of reality. At first, Peter rebukes Jesus, but responds by telling the disciples that they must lose their lives in order to save them (8:35). That just doesn’t make sense!
The disciples are afraid to ask Jesus to explain his second prediction (9:31-32), and Jesus further confounds them when he says, “whoever wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all (9:35).” Now for the third time, Jesus has explicitly stated that he will be condemned, abused, and killed (10:33-34).
It seems that the disciples become less able to understand Jesus as his words become more clear and direct. James and John completely ignore all that stuff about suffering, torture, and death. All they care about is getting chosen for places of honor!
Since the pivotal moment of Peter’s confession (8:29), our attention has turned, not only toward Jerusalem, but also toward an inevitable decision: can you, will you follow Jesus so closely that you accept his fate as your own? Can you, will you follow him to the death?
James and John are certainly willing to follow Jesus into glory. Jesus tries repeatedly to help them understand that his glory depends on his complete submission to God, even if it leads to death. A follower of Jesus cannot experience one without the other. Rulers must be servants. Leaders must be followers. Masters must be slaves.
Whoever you are, to become great, you have to become a servant;
to achieve honor, you have to serve with humility.
This truth remains a mystery to the disciples (10:24, 26, 32).
It’s interesting that Mark frames the disciples’ request as a statement, and Jesus’ response as a question. Next week, we will hear Jesus ask the same question of blind Bartimaeus. While Bartimaeus will offer the correct response: “Lord, I want to see.” James and John are still blinded by the anticipation of glory.
But when Jesus talks about his ‘glory,’ he means the core of his being,” his identity as the Son of God. While James and John see this as honor associated with the throne of David, Jesus knows it means suffering to the point of death. Ironically, the ‘right and left’ places James and John seek will actually be given to a couple of criminals who will be crucified with Jesus (15:27).
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus tells James and John. He raises two important images: the cup, and baptism. While these images might make us think of sacraments, James and John would not have interpreted ‘cup’ and ‘baptism’ as we do.
The image of the cup draws on an OT metaphor for God’s wrath (Psalm 75:8; Isaiah 51:17, 22) but also was used as an expression of sharing someone’s fate. ‘Baptism’ could also refer to being overwhelmed by catastrophe. James and John want to share in Christ’s destiny as ruler and king. They just don’t grasp what it will cost them.
When Jesus asks them if they can drink from the same cup as he, and be baptized with the same baptism, they “assure him that they can, and he assures them that they will.” According to Acts 12, Herod will have James executed in a just a few years, but the other apostles will not replace him as they did Judas. John will live a longer life, but end up in exile on the island of Patmos, isolated from his community of believers.
So, claiming Christ’s identity, or ‘glory’ will certainly lead to suffering. But there’s more to it than that. Suffering as an end in itself isn’t the point. Jesus gets to the real issue: submission to the Father.
Back in Mark 2:10, as he was healing the paralytic, Jesus said that he did it so that we would know he has the authority to forgive sins. And now, even though he has that kind of ultimate authority, he tells James and John that the decision is not his to make. Only the Father has this authority. Our place in the future kingdom is up to God, and God alone.
Now, make no mistake, when the other disciples get indignant about James and John’s audacity, it isn’t righteous indignation. It’s jealousy. Maybe they are angry that James and John got to Jesus first. But they are all pretty sure they have just as much right as these two when it comes to sitting next to Jesus on his kingly throne.
They’ve worked just as hard, walked just as many miles, listened to just as many sermons, and given up everything, as Peter told us last week, to follow Jesus. Why should James and John get the good seats, and not them?
And look what Jesus does when their jealousy threatens to divide them. Jesus doesn’t reprimand them. He doesn’t tell them to settle down and behave. He doesn’t tell them to grow up and start acting like mature disciples, instead of squabbling like little children. He does this instead. He calls them over and includes them in the conversation.
“Look,” he says. “You know that heathen rulers lord it over their subjects, acting like tyrants, throwing their weight around and behaving like bullies. But that’s not how my Father’s kingdom operates. And that isn’t how you are going to behave, if you really want to be associated with me. Instead,
“whoever wants to become great among you
must be your servant,
and whoever wants to be first among you
must be slave of all.
Once again, Jesus gives us a paradox: Human authority strives to dominate, but God’s Son reigns as a slave and “servant of all.” Instead of exerting power over others, Christ’s power comes from serving under them. The price tag of greatness in God’s economy is servanthood, slavery.
Mark points out our need to recognize how easy it is to give lip service to an idea, and how difficult it is to live out the actual requirement of discipleship, which is complete submission to God’s reign. Accepting Christ’s cup and baptism entails more than going through the motions of sacrament.
Participating in the life of Christ means submerging ourselves – whoever we are – in service to those Christ died to save – whoever they are. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
We should take care not to get caught up in debates about that word, “ransom.” The word lytron in Greek indicates that Jesus’ death does something, but we need to be careful not to think about is as some kind of simple transaction. In the Old Testament, this idea of ransom could refer to purchasing freedom, but just as often, it was used to talk about the way God acted to deliver his people.
Professor Matt Skinner writes, “A lytron is a liberation wrought by divine strength, not by payment.” Through Jesus’ death, God acts to free people from oppression and captivity to sin, so that they can become part of God’s reign.
It’s easy, looking back 2000 years, to marvel how thickheaded the disciples were as Jesus taught them about the cost of discipleship. But we fall into the same trap they did. We think we know what it means to follow Jesus, but we can’t believe he’d really ask us to do anything dangerous – or even uncomfortable.
Surely we can’t be expected to make ourselves vulnerable to dangers that come with ministry to violent criminals, or even just … strangers. Certainly, we shouldn’t really become destitute in order to provide for the destitute around us. And what about the ones who simply don’t want our help? We aren’t responsible for them, right?
So we do the safe, easy things like showing up for church or reciting a blessing at meal time. We may even read our Bibles and pray every day. Yet how often do our prayers, like James and John’s request, focus on what we want Jesus to do for us?
Do we ask that our lives “give glory to God,” yet avoid the sacrifice of self that such glory giving would require? Can we, will we follow Jesus so closely that we accept his fate as our own? Can we, will we follow him in full submission, as servants?
Theologian Donald Juel writes, “In the shadow of the cross we get a brief glimpse of a new community in which relations are not governed by power and status but by service and hospitality for those without status – a community in which those who have been ransomed live for others.”
“The truth is there is a cross in all of our paths almost all of the time, and if it’s not in our path at the moment, it’s in someone else’s path we can help share. There are hard promises we must keep, difficult roads we must traverse, and painful decisions we must make against our self interest, all in the interest of loving God and loving others.”
Jesus may not call us to die dramatic deaths, though that possibility remains. He does call us to live dramatically different lives that put the needs of all others ahead of our own. He calls us to scrub the toilets and take out the garbage, without complaint, whoever we are.
When asked if they could drink from Jesus’ cup and be baptized with his baptism, James and John answered, “We can.” But what Jesus is waiting to hear from us is this: “Yes, Lord. We will.”
 Donald H. Juel, Mark, 1990, 118.
 NIV Study Bible, 1995, note to Psalm 7:5.
 Juel, 146.
 NIV, note on Mark 10:38.
 James J. Thompson, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4; 188, 190.
 Matt Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=435, notes examples of lytron cognates in Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 15:15; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 43:14.
 Juel, 149.
 J.D. Walt, https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-wants-us-respond-hard-things/?mc_cid=c441e6c614&mc_eid=9bfd84c9a1