Leaving Perea and nearing Jericho, Jesus led the way towards Jerusalem. This is a determined, focused step in Mark’s description; Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. The disciples are alarmed (amazed) and others accompanying them are afraid. Apparently, they were astonished and concerned that Jesus was headed to Jerusalem where his enemies were numerous and powerful. Perhaps they feared the worst or they anticipated opposition to Jesus’ reign.
Jesus, as they are “going up to Jerusalem,” reminds the Twelve what this means. The Son of Man will be betrayed, condemned, flogged, humiliated and executed though raised three days later. There must have been an ominous foreboding among the disciples but their focus is not so much on these future horrendous events as much as it is on their role in the coming reign of the Messiah. They anticipate “glory.”
Mark 8-10 is peppered with both the ineptitude of the disciples (particularly as they debated who was the greatest and this misapprehensions about the nature of the kingdom) and the insistence by Jesus that whoever would be great must become a self-denying servant of all—one who lives at the bottom of the totem pole. Now, as they move toward Jerusalem, Jesus reminds them again that he himself will take on that role as he becomes last by suffering humiliation and death.
But some disciples have other things on their minds. Just as the rich young ruler had addressed Jesus as “teacher” with a question, so the brothers James and John address Jesus as “teacher” with a question. They come as supplicants, just as the rich young ruler. Perhaps presuming on their intimate friendship with Jesus as part of his inner circle (e.g., Peter, James and John), they request to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in his “glory.” Whatever Jesus is talking about concerning his death, they believe that glory is coming–they saw it at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9). Perhaps they thought their close relationship with Jesus meant a greater role than other disciples in the coming kingdom. In other words, when the kingdom fully arrives, they request the highest honors in the kingdom other than sitting on the throne itself. They want to reign with Christ as regents who wield delegated royal power above all others. They request hierarchical power in the coming kingdom.
But they do not understand what they are asking for. Jesus uses two metaphors to describe the process of becoming “great” in the kingdom of God. He asks them, “Can you drink the cup?” and “Can you be baptized?” Both metaphors point to suffering. Jesus, having just told them about his future in Jerusalem, asks if they are willing to suffer as he will suffer. Are they willing to undergo a baptism of fire and to drink the bitter cup of suffering? Can they take on the role of Israel’s suffering servant?
James and John are, they say; and they both will, says Jesus. James, as we know from Acts 12, will suffer an early martyrdom. John, as we know from Revelation 1 (assuming it is the same John), will suffer exile under Roman persecution. They will both know suffering and death as disciples of Jesus. Those who follow Jesus will suffer.
But to give “greatness” in the sense of rank and power is not Jesus’ prerogative; it is not even the point. Those positions—whatever they are—are the decision of the Father. Jesus cannot grant their request though he assures them that they will suffer as he will suffer.
Their request, of course, angers the other disciples. They have had this discussion before and probably on many occasions; they have argued about who is the greatest. Despite Jesus’ focused teaching about greatness and his exemplary life, the disciples still hunger for rank, power and status in the coming kingdom.
Again Jesus attempts to modify their conceptions of “greatness.” While the disciples think of “greatness” along the lines of Gentile kings and high officials who exercise power through status and rank, this is not the nature of the kingdom of God. Within the kingdom of God a different sort of “power-ranking” exists. It is not rooted in the exercise of authority or power but rather in service. Greatness is defined by servanthood rather than power.
Jesus did not come to exercise power and reign as Gentile leaders do. The Son of Man—that eschatological figure who will reclaim the earth for God—did not come to be served as if others bowed down to his higher rank and served his every need. Instead, he came to serve and provide for the needs of others. He came to die as a “ransom for many. The mission of Jesus is to serve, and through this service he would become “great.”
James and John, as other disciples, would become “great” as well, but not through the exercise of authority and power but through their own suffering for the sake of the kingdom.
The kingdom does call us to “greatness” through popularity, fame or success. The kingdom calls us to “greatness” through self-sacrifice, self-denial and service to others. The one who would be first must become last, and the one who would be great must become the servant of all (Mark 9:35).
This is a difficult lesson for disciples to learn. It was difficult for James and John as well as the others. It is difficult for us. It reverses fallen human culture; it reverses the American Dream where greatness is about success, wealth and power. But greatness is not found in awards, honors and pulpits. Rather, it is found in self-denial, suffering and sacrificial service. Greatness is not defined by who many people hear a lesson from a particular pulpit; it is defined by those who visit the prisons, sick and marginalized. It will not be found on the stages of the Academy or Grammies where the “first” of society honor themselves. It will be found in service among the last.
May God have mercy on us.