by Larry Broding
Gospel: St. Mark 10: 35-45
What sorts of ambitions do people have? How do these ambitions affect those around them?
A simple test of character is the question: "Why?" Why does the candidate seek the power a political position holds? Why does the actor seek fame in Hollywood or on Broadway? Why does the business person seek wealth or the climb up the corporate ladder? Why does the person of faith seek a position of ministry?
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with ambition in any of these fields. In fact, most people use ambition to better themselves and their surroundings. But the question must be asked: why do they seek? Do they want to wealth and fame and power for themselves alone? Or do they want to use these ambitions for the greater good? These were the questions Jesus asked his followers when the subject of ambition raised its head among the Apostles.
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus and said. "Teacher, we want you to do us a favor."
36 "What is it?" Jesus replied.
37 "Let us sit right next to you, on your right and left sides, when you become king," they answered.
38 "You really don't know what your asking for," Jesus said. "Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink or be dunked in the baptism I am dunked in?"
39 "Yes!" they eagerly replied.
40 "Well, you will drink from the cup I drink. And you will be dunked in the baptism I am dunked in," Jesus told them. "But I am not going to tell anyone they can sit on my right or left sides in the Kingdom. Those seats are reserved for the people who have been prepared by God."
41 When the other ten followers heard the discussion, they became very angry at James and John. 42 So, Jesus said "Come here, everyone! You know that the people who all point to as the leaders of world use power to make sure everyone knows they are in charge. Great people use power over the people they rule. 43 But, it's not like that with you. Whoever wants to have a great reputation among you must act as your servant. 44 Whoever wants to lead must be the slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come so others could serve him. No, he came to serve all and give up his life so people could be free!"
The story of the "Leadership Request" has a few variations in the gospels. In one story, the mother of James and John ask for the places of power and honor; in this passage, the brothers ask for themselves on the notion that worst Jesus can say is "No." What they do not expect is an opportunity to declare the "Good News."
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached HIM, saying to HIM, "TEACHER, we wish that YOU will do for us what we ask (of) YOU." 36 HE said to them, "What do you wish [of] ME] that I will do for you?" 37 They said to him, "Grant to us that, one (of us) on YOUR right and one (of us) on YOUR left, we might sit (beside YOU) in YOUR glory." 38 JESUS said to them, "You do not know what you ask (for). Are you able to drink the cup which I drink or to be baptized in the baptism which I am baptized?" 39 They said to HIM, "We are able." JESUS said to them, "The cup which I drink, you will drink, and the baptism in which I am baptized, you will be baptized in. 40 To sit on my right or my left is not MINE to give, but to whom it has been prepared."
10:38 "the cup which I will drink or to be baptized in the baptism which I will be baptized" the two verbs in the modifying clauses ("which I will drink . . . which I will be baptized") are in the present tense. They can be interpreted as 1) the immediate present condition (what Jesus was undergoing at that moment), 2) an indefinite present condition (i.e., the cup and baptism of Jesus' entire lifestyle and its consequences), or 3) the future (Jesus' coming suffering and death). The context of 10:32-33 argue for the third interpretation, what Jesus would suffer in Jerusalem.
Another note of interest was Jesus' analogies. He compared his condition to table fellowship (the cup) and initiation into the community (baptism). Both are sacramental images that tie entry into and fellowship with the community to Calvary. As James and John would soon learn, the Christian way was the road to the cross.
10:40 "To sit on my right or my left is not mine to give, but to whom it has been prepared." Many have interpreted this phrase as supporting predestination. (the view that God has foreordained those who would go to heaven). A closer reading, however, discounts that view. Jesus simply stated that glory in the Kingdom (i.e., the "seating arrangements") were God's prerogative. The disciple should not seek personal glory, but God's will. God prepared a place for all who follow his call.
"my left" The word "left" in this case is actually "well-named." In the time of Jesus, people ate with the right hand; the left hand was only used for personal hygiene purposes. "Well-named" was a euphemism for "left" to avoid the negative meanings of the left hand.
How do people get ahead in life? Education and ingenuity were not possible in Jesus' time; people believed that privilege (like education) was foreordained and the ingenious were evil for fighting against fate. Hence, honor and power were obtained through challenge (like verbal debate) and mere request. Since the brothers asked in front of the others, they were asking for a favor and challenging the "pecking order" that the disciples had established.
The question was simple: sitting at the places of honor when the Lord came in glory . Glory here meant reputation as well as power. The brothers wanted to share the spreading fame of Jesus by osmosis. They wanted to be popular by hanging onto the "Big Guy." This was clearly a lazy man's way to fame and fortune.
Commenting on their ignorance, Jesus responded with a question about a drinking cup and baptism . The drinking cup was used at dinner to show unity with the leader or host. The leader would drink from the cup then pass it to the next one in line for honor (and so forth, down the line). The passing of the drinking cup meant that the guests shared in the honor and power of the host/leader. It was a share in the leader's "glory" (i.e., reputation). Jesus' baptism led to his present reputation as a charismatic preacher and healer. Who wouldn't say yes to the drinking cup and baptism of a man with a growing reputation?! 
Jesus affirmed their commitment and their future  but insist he is God's instrument . Jesus implied that the glory of God is more important than his own; if he had the power to give places of honor to the brothers, his own ministry would be as selfish as their request. Not only does Jesus not have the power to grant their request, he would not want it. It was not Jesus' cup to pass or Jesus' baptism to give; it was the Father's.
41 Having heard (the discussion), the (other) ten began to become angry at James and John. 42 Having called them towards (HIMSELF), JESUS said to them, "You know that the ones regarded as rulers of the nations show mastery over them and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 It is not thus among you. But, whoever might want to become great among you will be your servant, 44 and whoever might want to be the first will be the slave of all. 45 For even the SON OF MAN not come to serve, but to serve and to give HIS life (as a) ransom in behalf of many."
10:42 "the ones regarded as rulers" is literally "the ones appearing to rule." The true meaning of this phrase is uncertain. Possibly, Jesus meant God of Israel was the true ruler of the world. The power of pagan rulers was transitory and illusory.
"the nations" means non-Jews (i.e., the Gentiles).
10:43-44 "become great . . . the first" "Great" was a code word for having a large public reputation. "First" was a code word for ruler. Christian reputation and leadership depended on the service.
10:45 "to give his life (as a) ransom in behalf of many." Ransom here did not mean money paid, as in kidnaping. The word meant "redemption" or "release." Hence a better translation might be "to give his life to release many (sinners)."
When the other apostles heard of the brothers' request, they became angry ; this verse acts as a bridge to Jesus' teaching on leadership based on love. Jesus rejected a leadership of power  but pointed to a leadership of service. He uses the image of the servant/waiter at a dinner to make his point. At the banquet of God's kingdom, it was not the person who passed the cup that was important; it was the one who took the order [43-44]. Referring to the "Son of Man" image , Jesus saw himself on the cross as the primary model for "servant leadership."
Think of waiters or waitresses in our own culture. A good waiter or waitress must be part entertainer (making good "small talk") when the order is placed, timely provider of food and drink, and invisible guide, ever to provide assistance, yet at a discrete distance. They are to leave us alone when we desire privacy, but approach immediately when we need help. They are to serve us and, in doing so, they lead us through the meal.
Catechism Theme: The Communion in Spiritual Goods (CCC 949-953)
God calls all in the Church to serve each other. For the Church shares its spiritual goods with its members. We, the Church, are one in faith, one in sacraments and worship, one in shared charisms, one in solidarity and charity. Our faith, our worship, the diversity of our spiritual gifts and talents, and the love we share all support one end, unity with Christ.
The Communion of Saints embodies the notion that all who are in Christ serve one another in love. True Christian leaders bring the sacred communion to life. For their ambition is not to glorify themselves but to evangelize. True Christian leaders bring others to Christ. Questions of fame, power, or gold are, at best, secondary.
How have others shown you Christian charity? How have they shown you and others their leadership qualities?
Jesus fits the waiter/servant role perfectly. He leads by serving us; even though he seems distant, he is ever present to help. As Christians, we are to lead others in the same way, with tact and quiet guidance, by moral example and moral commitment. Such leadership leads to the cross. But it also leads to resurrection.
In what areas have you shown service in the past two weeks? How do you plan to serve others this week? What do your experiences and plans reveal about your leadership?
Copyright 1999 -2007, Larry Broding
Sermons and Bible Commentary/Analysis for the 1st sunday after Shunoyo
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