James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to grant us whatever we ask.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ asked Jesus. ‘Grant us,’ they said, ‘that when you’re there in all your glory, one of us will sit at your right, and the other at your left.’ ‘You don’t know what you’re asking for!’ Jesus replied. ‘Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? Can you receive the baptism I’m going to receive?’ ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘we can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jesus, ‘you will drink the cup I drink; you will receive the baptism I receive. But sitting at my right hand or my left – that’s not up to me. It’s been assigned already.’ When the other ten disciples heard, they were angry with James and John. Jesus called them to him. ‘You know how it is in the pagan nations,’ he said. ‘Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many”.’
‘Sorry, you can’t have that seat. It’s already been booked.’ I was frustrated. It was one of my favourite train journeys, past some magnificent scenery. But the train was crowded, and there were hardly any seats on the side where one would get the best view. Only one, in fact; and I made for it – to be told it was already reserved. A standard disappointment, whether on trains or planes, or even in the theatre.
But when Jesus told James and John that the places they wanted had already been booked, they must have been puzzled. What did he mean? They were thinking, of course, of some-thing approaching royal thrones. Jesus would be in the middle, and they would be on either side of him: the Galileans have come to town, Zebedee’s boys have made it to the top at last! Now we’ll sort things out – especially those people who have been getting in the way, trying to stop Jesus launching his kingdom. We’ll show them! (Compare Luke 9.54.) And, who knows? – Jesus wasn’t married, so when his time came to pass on, someone would have to take over . . .
Dream on, thunder-boys. You haven’t been listening. ‘Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink? Can you receive the baptism I’m going to receive?’
Their answer ought to make us gasp. No problem, boss, they say. Of course we can. We’re up for anything.
They still don’t realize what they’re saying. Yes, says Jesus, maybe you will share my cup and my baptism. But sitting at my right and my left . . . and the passage goes on to wider applications.
But stay with the question for a moment. Mark has no doubt what all this refers to. Five chapters later we discover what James and John were asking for, and we shudder. The moment when Mark tells us that Jesus is enthroned in his kingdom – in other words, the moment he tells us that he has the words ‘King of the Jews’ above his head – he also tells us that they crucified two bandits alongside him, one on his right and one on his left (15.27–28). That not only explains Jesus’ reaction to the request of James and John. It also confirms the point that Jesus is now about to make.
Actually, he’s been telling them this for the last two chapters, and they still haven’t even begun to grasp the point. He is going to die; and his death will not be a messy accident, will not simply be the kind of thing that happens to people who lead powerful renewal movements or who go about declaring that God is now becoming king, and acting in accordance with that. His death will be the means by which he becomes king, and hence – since the two are intimately bound up with one another – the means by which God becomes king. This is how, as he said in 9.1, God’s kingdom will come ‘with power’ – but it is a power that, as Paul saw, is utterly redefined.
The redefinition, in fact, is the point of it all. James and John, like Peter at Caesarea Philippi, are still thinking as humans think rather than thinking as God thinks. Look at the pagan world, says Jesus. (We look around at our own world and – guess what! – remarkably little has changed.) The rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects, and people in positions of power boss other people around. That, no doubt, is what James and John wanted to do, and it’s what a great many people in our world long to do. If you can’t beat them, join them. But that isn’t how things work in the kingdom of God. Back, once again, to the lesson which the disciples had to learn, but still hadn’t learnt, after the encounter with the rich young man.
In God’s upside-down world (or should it be right-way-up world?) everything is reversed. It’s like Through the Looking Glass. Anyone who wants to be great must be (what did they expect: ‘prepared to work hard’ or ‘exceptionally prayerful and well behaved’ or ‘utterly trustworthy and responsible’?) – must be your servant. The one who hands you a fresh cup to drink out of. The one who cleans up when you’ve finished eating. The one who scrapes the mud off your boots when you come in from the field. The one you take for granted, who does the things you can’t be bothered to do. Yes: your servant. In fact, anyone who wants to be first must . . . again, what do we expect? ‘Must have exceptionally sharp elbows and be prepared to get up very early in the morning to get ahead of all the other pushy people out there’? No: to be first, you must be slave of all. Slave! Even lower than ‘servant’. The slave has no rights; no human dignity. Nothing to make you envy or look up to him. People despise slaves. Treat them as dirt. Look the other way rather than catch their eye . . .
Yes, precisely. Now watch:
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him;
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
That is the passage (Isaiah 53.2–3) that Jesus had in mind. It goes on to speak of this slave, this ‘servant of the Lord’, wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, receiving in himself the punishment that made us whole (53.5). He will give his life ‘a ransom for many’ (verse 45, summing up Isaiah 53.10 –12).
It isn’t just, in other words, that James and John haven’t been paying attention to what Jesus has been saying about what will happen to him in Jerusalem. They haven’t begun even to glimpse that Jesus’ forthcoming death will be the moment when, and the means by which, God’s saving power is unveiled in all its glory – through the suffering and death of the ‘servant’. In Isaiah, this is how God’s kingdom will come (52.7–12). In Mark, too, this is how God’s kingdom will come. How it has already come. How its work will continue to be implemented. This is Jesus’ powerful, deeply subversive, com-bination of ‘political theology’ (verses 42– 44) and ‘atonement theology’ (verse 45). It draws together what much modern thought has split apart, and still holds out an agenda to Jesus’ followers which we, like James and John, still find hard to grasp, let alone to live out.
Help us, Lord Jesus, servant and saviour, to be grasped by your vision of God’s new world, and to follow you in the servant-work through which it is accomplished.