Jesus, James and John: A Reflection on Leadership
By Bishop Daniel C. Arichea Jr.
Translation Consultant, Philippine Bible Society
January 29, 2018
Text: Mark 10:35-45
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
I am writing at a time when the above passage is the lectionary reading for Sunday. It is such a beautiful story, and also full of possibilities in terms of its application to our lives.
This passage is the third of three passages that follow the same pattern: Jesus tells about his suffering and death in Jerusalem; the disciples misunderstand; Jesus uses the disciples’ misunderstanding in order to teach them about discipleship. The other two passages are in Mark 8:27-38 and Mark 9:30ff.
In the passage we are considering, the misunderstanding of the disciples is represented by the request of the brothers James and John. Let us look at the passage more closely, concentrating on the implication of the passage for us.
The two brothers come to Jesus and say to him: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Is this a request or a demand? This does not sound like a statement from a disciple to his teacher. It is a statement that demands an answer like: “Who are you to tell me this?” Or “How dare you tell me to do whatever you ask!” But are we any different from the two brothers? Many of our prayers come out as demands. Or even if they are not demands, they are requests primarily for our benefit. What if the statement is turned around: “Teacher, we want to do for you whatever you ask of us!” Now that makes sense. And that would be a most meaningful prayer. But do we dare ask in this manner? We do sing, “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way.” But do we really mean it? Are we ready to respond to our Lord’s answer to such a prayer? Or have we already made up our mind as to what kind of response the Lord will give us!
To the credit of Jesus, he entertains the request (or demand) of the two brothers. “What is it that you want me to do for you?” And that is comforting for us. Even when we are out of line, our Lord still listens to us and gives us the benefit of the doubt. Our Lord is open to hear even the foolish requests that we make.
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The TEV makes the meaning clear: “When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, allow us to sit with you, one on your right and the other on your left.” At least the two brothers acknowledge the coming reign of Jesus, that Jesus will soon ascend his throne as king. But with this acknowledgment is a request (demand?) for them to sit with him, that is, to rule with him. The other ten disciples knew the meaning of the request, and that is why they got so angry with James and John, who seem to be asking for some privilege that would only be theirs and not shared with the rest of the disciples. Why, the other ten would also like to rule with Jesus! How dare the two brothers ask for that privilege only for themselves! Look at this scene again and see how typical it is in various situations in which we find ourselves. We tend to take advantage of others. We claim special privileges for ourselves, without regard to what happens to others. And when we see our colleagues being bestowed with honor and recognition, often without their asking for it, we have feelings of jealousy and envy. It would have been good if the other ten disciples castigated the two brothers for making such a request, because they recognized that such a request was not worthy of a disciple! But not so, as Jesus’ statements clearly show. The other ten also wanted to be first.
“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?” “Cup” and “baptism” here are figures of suffering. Some translations make this clear by the expression “cup of suffering.” In his prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus says, “Take this cup from me.”
Jesus had already told his disciples three times that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem. Suffering is a prerequisite to exaltation. There is no crown without the cross. The way to glory is through the path of suffering. No death, no resurrection. No grave, no empty tomb. Philippians 2:6-11 makes this very clear. It is only after Jesus dies on the cross that God exalts him and gives him a name that is above all other names.
The disciples do not seem to get the point. In Mark 9, right after Jesus told them about the sufferings he will experience, they began to argue about who is the greatest among them. The present passage does not say whether James and John understood what Jesus was referring to. At any rate, they answered: “We are able.” That reminds us the hymn we love so well:
Are you able, said the Master,
to be crucified with me
And heroic spirits answer,
To the cross we follow thee
Lord, we are able…
Every time I sing this hymn, I hesitate. Why? Because, like the disciples, I may affirm by words that I am able, and yet I know that I am not always true to these words. Even if to a certain extent I am able, I recognize that this is because of the Lord’s help. That is why I keep suggesting that when we sing this hymn, we should change the words “Lord we are able,” to “Lord make us able.” That is good theology!
History has proven that indeed at least one of the two brothers drank the cup to the full. In Acts 12.1-2, we are told that James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. As for John, tradition says that he lived a long time, which does not necessarily mean that he did not experience suffering; he did suffer but unlike his brother, he was not killed.
Jesus, ever the tactful one, does not grant their request, but does not close the possibility of their request being granted. Jesus simply told them that it is God who assigns those seats; in fact, God has already designated those who will occupy those seats, and if James and John are the ones, so be it. The text does not say who these people are; some commentaries suggest Elijah and Moses, who appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Elijah and Moses represent Israel, and at a time when the church was moving into the Gentile world, it would be reassuring for Jews that they are not left out in the new Messianic community. As one commentator puts it: “The history of the Old Israel does not end with the coming of Jesus but is part of the total messianic event.” (B. Van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary, 1998, p. 335).
The last part of this passage contrasts “heathen” leadership to that of the leadership style that Jesus’ disciples are expected to exemplify. “Heathen” leadership involves “lording it over” people, and acting like “tyrants” over them. In other words, there is a big gap between leader and follower, with the leader having complete control and the follower being obedient in complete submission. Not so with the disciples of Jesus! Instead, the great reversal is in effect: the great must become a servant, and the first must become a slave of all. In John 13, Jesus demonstrates this principle through an enacted parable: he washes the feet of the disciples, a task assigned to servants and slaves. Remember what he said after that: “You call me Master and Lord, and so I am. If I, then, your Lord and Master, wash your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” In other words, be servants to one another. That is hard enough. But it is even harder to be a servant to people outside your group, especially your enemies! In a world engrossed in winning, where being first is the primary ambition of people, the great reversal of the Gospel comes as a real challenge to those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. How do we demonstrate this in our life together, and in our relationship with others?
The conclusion gives us a very worthy byline: “not to be served, but to serve.” For Jesus, that included giving his life as a ransom for others, that is, to set people free from their enslavement to sin and thus make them children of God. For us, it might not come to that. But the byline is still valid as a way of life. It is good to be served, for that implies status, prestige, honor, glory. It is much better to serve, for that is being like the Master, being Christ-like, being a Christian. And don’t we often sing: “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart”? Well, Jesus has made it clear to us how to be one. Question is: Are we willing to be one?