This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on October 18, 2015.
Before eavesdropping on the conversation between Jesus and his disciples, we need to place this text in its immediate context. The Revised Common Lectionary omits verses 32-34, the third and final passion prediction in Mark’s Gospel. While the preacher does not necessarily need to preach the omitted verses, it is important to take note of them. In them, Jesus clearly states that his journey to Jerusalem will end by both the government and religious authorities mocking, spitting upon, flogging, and killing him. The text also notes that Jesus is walking ahead of them, confidently leading the way as the disciples follow behind.
Jesus has just uttered these words when James and John rush forward and make their request. Their request is all the more shocking given that Jesus has just told them what awaits him in Jerusalem. One pictures a parishioner announcing she has cancer in prayer meeting and the pastor running up to her immediately afterward to ask if she might leave part of her estate to the church. Did the disciples not hear Jesus? Are they not concerned for him, even for themselves? Can they not offer any words of comfort?
We remember that Mark’s record of the first two passion predictions did not end much better. After each prediction, the disciples are unable to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words. We can bemoan them for their thick skulls and selfish pursuits, or we can recognize ourselves and give thanks that even we are called to follow as Jesus confidently leads the way. Perhaps we should remember that if the first followers—whose feet were covered by the dust of the same path Jesus walked—did not grasp the fullness of Jesus, neither will we. Following Jesus is not about understanding all the mysteries of who he is, especially the mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection. We follow as best we can and that is enough.
Specifically, James and John want to be given the seats to Jesus’ right and left when he enters his glory. It is not clear whether they understand Jesus’ glory to be related to his death and resurrection or, more likely, to their hopes that Jesus will somehow dethrone Roman rule and usher in a new earthly kingdom. Either way, Jesus declares they have no idea what they are asking. Those familiar with Mark cannot help but think of 15:27, when Jesus hangs on the cross with a bandit on his right and left—truly, they do not know what they are asking.
Even so, Jesus asks them if they think they are able to “drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” They declare they are able, and Jesus does not rebuke them for this declaration. Indeed, they will become leaders of the Church who will one day lift up the cup and enter those waters.
A preacher might focus on the image of cup and baptism. One can find in-depth analysis of the scriptural usage of “drinking the cup.” Most commonly, this image is a sign of the drinking of God’s judgement and wrath, but it also can be a cup of joy (Psalm 23). How does this inform our own practice of the Lord’s Supper? What does it mean for Jesus to drink the cup of judgement and wrath? What does it mean that we, the followers of Jesus, also drink from this cup? What does it mean to drink the cup of joy? How do judgement and joy come together every time we share the cup?
The preacher might also reflect on baptism. Clearly, Jesus speaks of his coming baptism in terms of death. In what ways is baptism an act of dying? Like the disciples, we share the cup and enter the waters without knowing exactly what we are doing. There is grace enough in our unknowing, but perhaps we can run forward with James and John long enough to be reminded of the ways cup and baptism draw us into the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The other disciples are no better than James and John. They are jealous—how dare James and John seek the coveted positions of power. This prompts Jesus to shake his head. Do the disciples not see that they are doing with the Kingdom of God exactly what the Gentiles do with their kingdoms? Lusting for power and control, they prepare for a new Kingdom by imitating the old ones. Sounds a lot like the Church, does it not? Our own history tells us what happens when we move from minority to majority, from powerless to powerful. Too often the Church universal, and we in particular churches, lust for power and control as if that is a Kingdom thing. It is tempting to imitate other systems of power. That is not the way of the Kingdom of God, says Jesus. Instead, followers of Jesus must become servants of all.
Finally, we hear the words of Jesus in verse 45. Jesus came to serve and to give his life as a “ransom” for the multitude. This is one of the few instances in the Synoptic Gospels when Jesus interprets his death. The term ransom referred to a payment made to release a prisoner or emancipate a slave. Certainly, this verse alone does not express the full depth of New Testament witness regarding the atonement, but it is significant. Jesus came to offer the multitude redemption. Someway, somehow his death will be vital to this work or redemption. To ask too many questions about how this ransom works would be to run forward with James and John and begin asking things we “know not.” Instead, we take our place behind Jesus, humbly follow in his path, drink from his cup, wash in his baptism, and become servants of God and neighbor. That is what matters most. Not that we understand what we are asking, but that we follow the one ahead.
Dr. Rusty Edwards
University Baptist Church, Hattiesburg, MS
Tags: discipleship, Kingdom of God, atonement, baptism, Lord’s Supper