Pentecost 21: 21 October Mark 10:35-45
This story is almost bizarre, until we realise that it parodies that almost universal malady: the will to power. The irony bleeds before us as we hear the ambition of James and John and catch a glimpse of the crucifixion scene. Yes, they can drink the cup. Yes, they can share the baptism. They are the first of many witnesses to misunderstanding Jesus and the sacraments. They have got it so wrong.
Just when we are ready to join the other disciples in rebuking the brothers (10:41), Jesus summons them - and us (10:42). What follows is political comment in the broadest sense. Notice how people love exercising power over others! Jesus is identifying a system. People love power and people also tend to love the powerful. The greatest is the one who can dominate, the strongest, usually the father in the family and the king in the community.
At least James and John are honest about their intentions. They want power and they assume that that is also what Jesus wants. Even more worrying are those who are unaware that this is what drives them and hide it from themselves and others by fine and seductive words.
Why should we blame James and John? Are they not just wanting to be like God? Isn’t that the main thing about God - the king, the almighty, the father? It is rather odd if God is like that and if by contrast we are not to seek power. People’s gods are their gods. People’s gods are their models, their idols. It works both ways: people’s gods affect people’s values and people’s values create their gods. It is a mutually supportive system. We should not be surprised that James and John want to be powerful. Biblical tradition is rich with images of God in terms of such power.
Jesus is being deliberately subversive when he identifies the power system. He is not saying: leave the power to me, or even to God: you are slaves! That would reinforce the power system in which, for there to be powerful people, there have to be powerless and disempowered people. Much of the language of ‘serving God’ is tainted with the imagery of servitude towards a ruler, as much of the imagery of worship derives from royal courts (and vice versa). Mark is not presenting Jesus as wanting subservience. In fact he has Jesus says so directly: ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served’ (10:45)!
Being a servant and a slave is not about subservience to Jesus, but about joining him. John’s gospel even has Jesus declare that the disciples (and we) are to be his friends not his servants (15:15). This is not just task-related, as if it pertains to a particular mission and a particular time or role. Jesus’ comments in 10:43-44, which almost mirror those in 9:35, declare that this is about what it means to be a person, what it means to be great. We have to add: great - in the eyes of Jesus and in the eyes of God. Jesus espouses these values for himself!
Something very odd happens if we stop there and exempt God, but it is the most common assumption. We are to be like this; Jesus is like this. Is God like this, too? Surely not the almighty father, the king of creation? There is much in the Bible with which to rescue God from that fate. Yet when we examine the teaching of Jesus and the wisdom of the Church’s reflection on who he was, we find that this is, indeed, what he meant. At its simplest we can say: Jesus is just like God and God is just like Jesus. His idea of God as father and as king matched his lifestyle and mission: in his hands these were images less of power and more of compassion and caring. Jesus is not an exception in the life of God, an interim stunt, a temporary abnormality which we call grace; Jesus is not the exception, but ‘the rule’. Such a theology is almost unbearable - it survives with great difficulty. Images of power, triumph, defeat of foes, flood back to rescue God from such vulnerability - and soon we see Jesus pictured in full battle dress at his right hand.
Mark will confront us with the absurdity of this claim (by usual standards). In 10:45b he keeps us on track: ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many’. It is an image of liberation, redemption. Mark shows no interest in undressing the image or developing theories of transaction, cultic or otherwise. His focus is: this great one will give his life for others. We will see it: ‘king of the Jews’, wearing a crown of thorns, broken in self giving on a cross, drinking the cup, immersed in the baptism of suffering and death. That is where Mark’s journey takes us if we dare to follow.
In the meantime he contrasts Jesus’ determination not to waver with the disciples’ determination to win. Mark’s contrasts are extraordinary, almost irreverent. How could disciples so miss the point? Mark may well know more than meets the eye. Acts reports the murder of James in 44CE; some later traditions report that both met their death then. The fourth gospel makes a similarly ‘playful’ link between Peter’s naiveté and his real death (13:36; 21:18-19), perhaps in imitation of Mark.
Mark’s story thus meets his hearers at many levels. It is as though he invites them and us to find ourselves mirrored in these scenes. Out of the reality of history he creates a stage which extends into our reality and invites us to participate, to step into the story, to expose to ourselves our will to power, our lords and our gods and somehow in the process to disentangle ourselves, our ‘Lord’ and our God from the system. It is dangerous - because all who want power must exterminate sources of threat.
The story does not leave us insightfully limp, passive and weak - or pretending to be so. It empowers. Jesus was powerful. The liberation he lived did not require him to seek power for his own sake, but to own the power he had in compassion and in self giving. His call and example was not to avoid leadership, but to be and model a new kind of being, including being powerful and a leader. He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.
Epistle: Pentecost 21: 21 October Hebrews 5:1-10