29th Sunday in OT Year B
Commentary on Mark 10:35-45
You will have seen on the news the heated debate between Mit Romney and Barack Obama aimed at winning votes to be the "top dog" in America.
James and John's request in today's gospel to sit at Jesus' right and left hand is just such a political move. They are looking for positions of power in what they assume will be Jesus' government to be.
The underlying assumption is that Jesus as Messiah will establish a new government, that he will be king, and that they want to be top dogs. They assume that as "senior" disciples they are in line to be the main leaders in Jesus' administration. You have to remember that they were living in an occupied country where political "messiahs" were ten a penny and Jesus was, for them, the best of the bunch! They have seriously missed the point!
Jesus' response begins with humour, turning to surprise, compassion, and incredulity that they have still not understood what he is doing: "You do not know what you are asking", he says. A modern translation might be: "You're having a joke, right?".
Jesus goes on to ask them whether they are ready to drink the cup that he drinks and to be baptized with his baptism. Clearly, in context, he is referring to his passion and death. In telling us this story, some 30 years after the event, Mark has the benefit of hindsight.
Their response, still in cloud cuckoo land, sounds like mere bravado! "We can!" We will do whatever it is needed to follow you wherever you go; no matter what happens - we are with you. If this John is the "beloved disciple" he at least is still there at the crucifixion - the others will be long gone!
Jesus' response hints at what is likely to happen to them. "The cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptised you shall be baptised" Mark's hindsight again. The gospel was written around 68-73 and James was stoned to death in Jerusalem in 62. Tradition has it that John died peacefully after a long and fulfilled life, but maybe Mark knows something we don't.
Jesus goes on to tell them that positions in God's kingdom are not for him to decide. That's not for anyone to decide - the Father will decide. There is no hierarchy in the Kingdom of God! So don't be looking for a place on the board of governors!
Meanwhile the other disciples have twigged what's happening and are furious with James and John.
Jesus tries to restore peace. He points out the overall political context in which they live: "You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers' lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt."
The disciples' pattern of life must not be like that of the "Pagans" - specifically the Romans. The way in which the disciples order and govern their lives will be very different from the Roman pattern of domination.
Mark probably wrote the gospel in Rome during the persecution of the Christians by Nero. Only a few years later, in the year 70, Roman force, sent by the emperor Vespasian, will destroy the temple in Jerusalem and savagely massacre all the other Jewish "resistance fighters". Nero and Vespasian were both very nasty characters!
Jesus' ministry is as one who serves, rather than one who is served by others. "The Son of Man himself came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
It's true that Jesus had to die in order to defeat death by rising again, but could there have been a better way? In context, there were deeply rooted Jewish traditions of death as the punishment for sin and of sacrifice as the "atonement" or the remedy for sins. This is another example of Mark's use of hindsight. He is reading back into Jesus' words something that the early church wrestled with later.
Put simply, Mark's Gospel tells us that Jesus has come to set people free from the power and structures of evil in this world. Specifically, Jesus has come to set his people free from bondage to Roman tyranny. When he gives his life, he gives his life by allowing himself to be crucified by the powers of this age as a way of setting free those who are held captive by the powers of this age. Jesus gave his life as a "ransom" paid to those holding the world in captivity; the captors were people, not God.
Jesus sets the pattern and leads all of us in nonviolent resistance to the evils of any age. He empowers us to recognise that the possibility of peace, joy, and the gifts of the Spirit in the kingdom of God are present now for those who would choose to follow him.
Suffering for others and serving others is the way of ransoming people from captivity of whatever form that might be, wherever they are and whenever they live.
As stewards of the Kingdom today, we are called to serve, and possibly to suffer, to liberate those around us from the captivity that they might be in and to tell them of the Good News of Jesus Christ. As Isaiah says in the first reading: "through (us) what the Lord wishes will be done." Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
Let's pray that in this Year of Faith each and every one of us will build up a deep, personal and passionate relationship with Jesus. In that way, to pinch an idea from Bishop Phillip, we will get to know a great deal more about the faith so that it becomes our faith.