James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus 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.’
Just a chapter earlier in Mark’s Gospel the disciples had been arguing among themselves about who is the greatest among them (Mark 9:33). They don’t really seem to have learned their lesson or come to understand the nature of servant-hood.
In this reading James and John ask of Jesus to grant them a place on the right and the left when Jesus comes into his glory. Jesus does not think they really understand what they are asking. Can they drink the cup of suffering or be baptised with the baptism of death?. Clearly the brothers think they are able. However, it is not for Jesus to grant their wish, the place has been prepared by God the Father.
This is not the end of the story for the other brothers are angry with James and John. Jesus goes on to describe the nature of authority. Probably thinking of the Roman Emperor and those he grants authority to like the family of Herod and provincial governors Jesus points out that they lord it over the people and the great ones are tyrants. In Jesus’ community those who become great are to be servants of others, the first must be a slave to all. Jesus came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
The leadership that Jesus describes is not the sort of leadership that many of us think of, where authority is exercised by a few over the many, but takes the form of service. The point is made in John’s Gospel in the upper room with Jesus taking a towel and a basin and washing twelve pairs of dirty feet. That was the same night before the way of servant-hood was displayed upon the cross.
The word ransom is a tricky word and it is easy to heap all sorts of interpretations upon it, some of which I suspect Mark will be unfamiliar with. It is probable that the meaning here is not about giving his life ‘in place of’ rather it is about Jesus giving his life ‘on behalf of’. The task of being a servant is transformed to a task of bringing about liberty.
There is no point in asking who the ransom is paid to, the point is that Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many, he demonstrates the ultimate act of service to others by his final act of dying. Jesus dies as he lived giving himself away in love.
Gracious God, in our world, people seek authority in order to exercise power over others, people seek authority in order to gain recognition for their abilities, people seek authority in order to bring about change..
Jesus tells us that true greatness lies in service, true greatness lies in love and concern for others.
Let us pray for those who exercise authority, may they be granted wisdom, and may we find our authority in you. In our service may we bring liberation to others. In the name of Christ. Amen.
The Rev’d David Whiting is the minister of the Sunderland & Boldon Partnership.