Seeking Seats of Power or Places to Serve? - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21 B (Mark 10)


Mark 10:35-45 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: The world tells us that we should pursue power because those who have power determine their own futures. If you have power you get to set the agenda, and who doesn't want to set the agenda? Once you have power it's difficult to let go of it. After all, when you power you not only get to set the agenda, but you get to dominate others. That means you can protect yourself from those who would seek to dominate you. One of the hallmarks of American Exceptionalism and the call for America First is that Americans set the agenda (exceptionalism) and protect themselves (America First/Isolationism). Our goal, it appears, in the minds of many is to maintain our position as the world's supreme superpower. After all, the USA has the largest military arsenal in the world, Part of the agenda of eing a superpower is getting to dominate others while preventing others from challenging us. We may understand that this is the way nation-states work, but what about religious communities? Christianity is, after all, the largest and wealthiest religion. Do we not have power? Will use that power to help others or protect our "rights?" I ask that question at a time when in some quarters of the Christian community here in the United States the complaint rises that they are being persecuted even as they try to flex political muscle. With this in mind, what should we make of Jesus' message in Mark 10?     

Does the “will to power” define what it means to be human? That is the view 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. If you've spent any time in a church you will notice how different groups and individuals often jockey for power. They may engage in this effort overtly or covertly. They may attempt to dominate a board meeting or conspire in the parking lot. Clergy learn quickly how to play the game or they may not survive. The goal is to do what is necessary to impose their will upon the people. In free church traditions where clergy are subject to the control of the local boards, they may find this more difficult than in denominations that give significant power to clergy. In these cases, the goal is to impose the will of the "majority." So, how different is the church from the world when it comes to power politics? It all starts in the Gospels.    

Here in Mark 10, James and John, who have been walking Jesus long enough to get the scent of the power dynamics within the group, make a move to gain power. It's worth remembering that these two brothers are regularly listed with Peter as ones who are closest to Jesus. Since they’re brothers, twins even, 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. As for the other nine, they seem to be oblivious to the power play. They're bit players in this group of twelve. It's James and John plus Peter, and Peter stands in the way of their taking absolute control. 

            These two brothers 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 could 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 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.

           I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t initially say no to their request. Instead, he asks them to consider the cost of taking up this position in the Realm of God. He wants to know if they are willing to be baptized with his baptism and drink from his cup? Now, this has a sacramental ring to it (baptism and communion?), but the point here concerns their readiness to face the challenges ahead that Jesus will face. They respond by eagerly declaring their willingness to be baptized with his baptism and drink from his cup, even if they're not sure what that means.  After all, power doesn’t come to those unwilling to take risks. Jesus gets their commitment to the cause, but then dashes their hopes when he tells 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 of his followers, 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, but 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.  


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