Seats of Power or Place of Service? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21B
Mark10:35-45 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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.”
Power is something to be pursued, or so the world tells us. Those who have power can determine their own futures. They can set the agenda. They can dominate others, and therefore protect themselves (or so they think). As one who lives in a self-proclaimed Super Power, which has the largest military arsenal in the world, I’m aware of the temptation to impose our will upon the rest of the world. Indeed, many voices clamor for a more robust military posture in the world. If we project power, then the other will choose not to challenge us.
In every walk of life, there seems to be this need to gain power. There is this “will to power” that defines our humanity. At least that is the opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, according to Nietzsche, the will to power is the very essence of life:
[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body... will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant - not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power... 'Exploitation'... belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life. [Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, s.259, Walter Kaufmann transl. --l]
To live is to seek the power to dominate and exploit.
This will to power is present even in the church. Yes, the local church is not immune. Different groups and individuals will jockey for power. They can engage in this effort overtly or covertly. They can do it in the board meetings or in the parking lot. Clergy can seek to impose their will upon the people, but in free church traditions where clergy are subject to the control of the local boards, others might seek to impose the will of the majority. How different is the church from the world when it comes to power politics?
James and John have been walking Jesus long enough to get the scent of the power dynamics within the group. They are regularly listed with Peter as being the ones closest to Jesus. They’re brothers, twins even, and they seem to work in tandem. After all, they had once worked together in the boats on the Sea of Galilee. They decide that now is the time to make their move and push Peter off to the side (the other nine don’t seem to matter).
They understand the way the world works. They know that those who sit closest to the king are considered the most powerful persons in the kingdom (besides the king). I remember back in the good old days of the Soviet Union, when Sovietologists would try to divine who might be the next General Secretary of the Communist Party and thus leader of the country by observing where the leadership stood on the Kremlin wall when reviewing the troops. Those who stood closest to the current leader were considered the likely successors. James and John want to be in that position. They will help advise Jesus, and even succeed him at some point (that would require moving Peter to the side). So they ask Jesus for the chief seats, on either side of him.
Jesus doesn’t initially say no. Instead he asks them to consider their commitment to the cause. Are they willing to be baptized with his baptism and drink from his cup? This has a sacramental ring to it (baptism and communion?). In any case they eagerly declare their willingness to be baptized with his baptism and drink from his cup. They’re committed, though I’m not sure they know what they are agreeing to. After all, power doesn’t come to those unwilling to take risks. But Jesus dashes their hopes by telling them that it’s not in his power to grant their request. Those seats go to those who have been prepared for this role. Who that might be is not revealed. In any case, Jesus isn’t making the appointments. So they’re out of luck.
It’s not surprising that the rest of the disciples get a bit perturbed with their insolence. How dare they ask for the chief seats? They had to be wondering why they hadn’t asked Jesus first. I can see Peter getting a bit hot under the collar at this end run around him. After all it does appear that Peter is first among equals. If anyone should sit in those seats, it should be him. But the others probably thought they had as much right to the seats as anyone else. So they grumble at James and John’s bold request.
Having engaged James and John and perceiving the angst of the remainder his following, Jesus decides to offer another lesson about what it means to live in God’s realm. As he has done on many a previous occasion, he turns things upside down. The Gentiles, he tells them, operate with the understanding that power is exercised from the top down. Power is in the hands of the tyrant. Such is not to be the case in the realm of God, where the great should be servants. But what does this mean? Stanley Saunders notes:
Servanthood is too often a platitude in congregations, or a mantle thrust upon some to the advantage of others, rather than a defining shared practice. Where service is valued only by a few and consumed by others, the church merely replicates the politics of the Gentiles. Distrust and division, displayed here by the disciples, are sure symptoms of communal life disrupted by the quest for personal power. [Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 331]
The call to servanthood goes to all, and not merely the few. But such is the question of the will to power. Who is our guide? Nietzsche or Jesus?
The passage concludes with this word: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” As Jesus has said on several occasions—in the realm of God the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The Son of Man, which in Mark refers to Jesus, is that person who serves. He came for that purpose, and in doing so he turns the tables on our power structures.
Finally, he is understood to be the one who gives his life as a ransom for the many. What does this mean? We should understand this word in the context of Jesus’ ongoing revelation of what lies ahead. He understands his move toward Jerusalem as being a move toward the cross. The cross will stand as a call to a new form of life, where all are called to be servants. In doing so, Jesus sets us free (ransoms us) from the system that seeks to dominate and tyrannize us. In moving toward the cross he sets us free from our captivity to the systems of this world.