They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
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.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 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?’ 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; 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.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’(NRSV)
This is the third time Jesus speaks openly of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. It is, once again, met with an uncomprehending silence. Jesus words sit almost as awkwardly in the gospel as they must have in the air. They are not misheard – but neither are they understood.
And once again, Jesus’ declaration is followed by a demonstration of the extent of the disciple’s ignorance. The request of James and John reveals a wrestle for rank. They imagine positions of power even while Jesus points to his upcoming suffering. They are truly at cross-purposes.
For the disciples Jesus’ predicted passion remains unexplored. It is anything but central. So much so that when Jesus asks of their ability to embrace his baptism they immediately answer in the affirmative.
Whatever Jesus is talking about it is not altering their ambition.
Of course, it is not only James and John. The anger of the remaining disciples may reveal the extent to which they too have power interests. Perhaps they hopefully hear in Jesus’ reply that these lofty positions are being ‘prepared’ for them. Desire and ambition have found a firm foothold among this community.
The disciples display values that surround them. Their plans mirror the very domination and control they hope to overthrow. Left unchallenged it will give birth to tyranny. Tellingly, the repeated positioning word used here is ‘over’. They too seek positions above.
But the values of the Kingdom are radically different. Here the great will serve while the greatest – or ‘first’ – will be ‘slave of all’.
Perhaps we do well to remember that Jesus is not speaking into an era where the ownership of another finds no place. To the powerful slavery is the irreplaceable economic backbone of their society. They struggle to imagine any other possibility. For the rest it was a harsh, oppressive, and ever-present reality. Everyone was doing their best to avoid becoming entangled in this unforgiving web. For too many it was too late. The whole world is fighting for elevation while Jesus dangerously invites his followers to move the other way. Jesus is asking a lot.
Jesus’ last call invites the disciples back to the events to which he has repeatedly pointed: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Jesus asks no more than he is willing to give. His suffering and death will be the extreme act of service. Jesus will become both the ‘first’ and the ‘greatest’.
Read these final words with care. They are not primarily another passion prediction. Within this conversation they function as nothing less than an invitation to follow Jesus into a life lived in the service of others.