Outside the box

Pentecost 21 – 2015

Mark 10:32-45

Marian Free


In the name of God who challenges, surprises and above all turns the world upside down. Amen.

For the third time, Jesus predicts his suffering and crucifixion and for the third time his disciples show their complete failure to understand. If you remember, the first time Jesus announced his upcoming death and resurrection, Peter rebuked him. On the second occasion the disciples (embarrassed and awkward) changed the topic and began to argue among themselves as to who was the greatest among them. Finally in today’s gospel James and John ask Jesus to give them preeminent places in his kingdom. It appears that despite Jesus’ teaching and example, they have still failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ task.

It is simply beyond the comprehension of Jesus’ disciples that the “anointed one”, the one sent by God, would be anything but a leader – someone in control of not only his own destiny, but of the destiny of those who followed him. The notion that the one sent by God would be a servant, that he would exhibit vulnerability and frailty and, worst of all that he would be at the mercy of the leaders of the church and of the nation, was completely outside their world view. So even though Jesus tries to explain to them the nature of his ministry, it simply does not sink in. They can only think of Jesus in ways familiar to them.

In order to understand the request of James and John then, it helps to understand something of the culture of the first century Mediterranean culture in which ideas of honour and shame played a very big part. Honour was something to be sought after. It was what set one person apart from another. Honour was bestowed primarily by one’s birth, but it could also be bestowed by a leader – as a reward for services rendered, in response to flattery and other inducements – or by competing with other members of one’s group for positions of influence over the remainder. Honour could also be gained by shaming another in debate. Shame was to be avoided at all costs because to be publicly shamed was to lose one’s place in the world both figuratively and in reality[1].

So, even though James and John have completely misunderstood everything that Jesus represents, it can be said in their favour that they are behaving in a way that is completely understandable in terms of their cultural situation. They are on their way to Jerusalem, the seat of government. We, the readers, know that this is a risky venture, and the text tells us that Jesus’ followers were afraid. No doubt they expected some sort of confrontation. Reading between the lines, we can assume that the disciples thought that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem in order to take on the authorities. There seems to have been no doubt in their minds that he would come out of such a confrontation as the victor. Hence the request by James and John: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.“ James and John believe that when Jesus has conquered the authorities in Jerusalem he will be able to share his victory with those who have followed him. That is, he will be able to give positions of honour to those who have served him well.

What they have not realised is that Jesus’ “glory” will be unlike anything that they can imagine. Jesus “glory” will be unrecognisable as glory. To them, at least initially, it will appear as shame – crucifixion being a humiliating and shameful way in which to die.

Jesus does not strive for honour in the same way that his disciples do. For Jesus, honour was to be found not in striving for recognition or power, but in accepting the fate that God had in store for him. He will willingly “drink the cup” that has been given to him, however degrading, and he asks whether James and John have the courage to do the same[2].

Mark almost certainly uses Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ failure to understand as a literary device. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ misunderstanding illustrates the point that Jesus’ mission overturns the values and expectations of this world.

God’s action in Jesus was so radical, so “outside the box” that twenty centuries later we still fail to completely understand. The notion of a God who serves, the idea that God could love us so much as to place Godself completely in our hands is so utterly foreign to the idea that many of us hold of God, that we simply cannot grasp it. We long for a God who is all-powerful and who is victorious over all. Instead we have to settle for a God who is powerless and vulnerable and who, by his life and actions, confronts all human values and ideals – thereby demonstrating that service, vulnerability and an absence of striving are the values that will lead to peace in our own lives and thus to peace in the world.

[1] Jesus plays on the idea of the avoidance of shame in the parable about taking the lower place at the banquet and it was in order to avoid shame, that Herod allowed John the Baptist to be beheaded.

[2] Here again, understanding the cultural context is useful. “In Mediterranean culture, the head of the family fills the cups of all at table. Each one is expected to accept and drink what the head of the family has given.” (John Pilch, www.liturgy.slu.edu) In the case of Jesus, the head of the family is of course God and it is God, not Jesus, who will determine places of honour.


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