Gospel: Mark 10:35-45
9:30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ 32 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, 33saying, ‘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; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
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.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But 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?’ 39They 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; 40but 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. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
15:27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.
The desire for glory— and its cost
There is something about this text which changes it from being just one more example of disciples of Jesus who do not understand his message.
In Mark 8, Jesus teaches about his coming death. Peter protests this cannot be so, and is corrected— bluntly!
In Mark 9, Jesus again teaches about his coming death. But the disciples argue over who is the greatest, and Jesus must correct them.
In Mark 10, this week, Jesus again teaches about his coming death, and in even more detail.
Two disciples come and ask that they may sit at his right hand and his left, "in his glory." It is not quite a repeat of the previous event. Jesus does not correct them so much as indicate their naivety: "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?"
From our point of view their arrogance seems overweening— we wonder if they have listened to anything. But he merely affirms that they will indeed drink his cup and undergo his baptism— which I read as him tacitly agreeing to their request; he is saying they will be with him in his glory. However, he says the places at his left and right are not his to give; they are already given.
The disruption, or wrinkle, in the rhetorical pattern1 becomes a little more obvious when we find there is still a correction, but the people he corrects are the other ten, who we might think are quite reasonable in their anger! The text makes it clear that their anger is not some righteous reaction to James' and John's lack of understanding, but is the same old rivalry of Chapter Nine. They are the ones who have learned nothing, whereas James and John— well, Jesus seems almost indulgent of them!! I wonder if instead of reading this text in the traditional stern voice, we can read it with the inflection of the good teacher who recognises that these two students have begun to see something?
Could it be that James and John properly long for glory— albeit naively? For it is in the third correction that Jesus most fully outlines his coming glorification, which is to be the cross.
About now, while making my first notes for this post, I had to go out to a funeral. It was a secular funeral within a family I know and love. Their grief was terribly raw. Despite the obvious care of the funeral director, I had the sense my friends were offered a little pep talk with platitudes about love, and about remembering their mother and friend every day. What a miserable end to a magnificent life!
I reflected on the familiar liturgy I had so missed, which reminds us of our secure place in God's love within the great drama of creation. How do we know this means anything, and is not simply a pretence to avoid what the sad little parlour service essentially owned up to: there really isn't much you can say about death; it's the end. There is no glory, if we are honest, just a whimper. I wondered what an atheist would think about the service I would have led.
As I have grown older, two things have become clear as I critique my own faith. Firstly, most of what we call glorious imagines too little. Indeed, much which is said and written seems to imagine God merely as a somewhat more powerful version of ourselves, still captive to the need for honour and revenge, unable to love unless people jump through some kind of atoning hoop. We talk... about glory, but underneath that, there is usually something— an imagination of God, and of our place in God's creation— which sounds very much like the privilege and violence of those who are in sight of the top of the pile. Our glory is just more of the same. The jibe about a pretend friend in the sky is uncomfortably accurate.
If we do not desire something utterly transcendent, something that could be described or imagined as "sitting at Jesus' right hand in his glory," — acknowledging all the while that we do not know what we seek to imagine, and are groping after an intuition— we are probably settling for far too little from life; settling, in fact, for an idol, a thing. The tragedy of prosperity theology, for example, is that longing for much, it settles for so little and calls it blessing; one might say it sells its birthright for a mess of pottage. (cf Gen 25:29-34) How could we think that more things are a sign of salvation!!?
In my thought experiments and longings to transcend my poverty of being, such small glories always prove to be a variation of a pretend friend in the sky; a deflection of death in which the pathos of my funeral becomes merely pathetic. If we are merely an accident of an empty material universe, so be it. But God, or something, preserve me from trusting in what proves to be a mere pretence that we are not so.
This is the second thing: Glory must be grounded in substantial human experience, otherwise it risks becoming a whistling in the dark, barely an hypothesis , and even a tool that can be used to hold power over others: Die in the battle for Jerusalem and you are guaranteed a place in heaven, the Crusaders were told. It takes only a little reflection to see that an utterly transcendent glory which is an untestable hypothesis is likely simply a grander pretend friend in the sky.
Mark tells us Jesus' glory is the cross; at his right and his left are two criminals, so great is the mockery of the kingdom of God by human violence. Who is at his right and left is indeed not his to choose. And there is no cup, only a sponge with sour wine to mock the one who has been abandoned.
In their anger, the ten seem to imagine glory in too small a way, as though glory were limited and that if James and John get glory there will not be enough for them. If James and John have glory we will miss out; we will be diminished, we will not be great, we will be less, we will come last. It's the same old anger and rivalry that always leads to violence. It's the same old misunderstanding that power means being able to force our will upon people.
Mark presents us with an utterly transcendent but completely grounded imagination of glory. Glory, the showing forth of God and God's power, is
the new kind of power that is to be unleashed in the world, confronting the rulers of the world with God’s new way... (NT Wright How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp217)
He refers to the text of Mark 10:40: "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."
For Mark, it is clear that the two brigands on Jesus’s right and left, as described in 15:27, are the ones to whom “it’s been assigned already.” But that means, as we might have concluded from other evidence too, that Jesus’s crucifixion is the moment when he becomes king, when, as James and John say, he is “there in all [his] glory” (10:37). That is the powerful — if deeply paradoxical! — “coming of the kingdom” as spoken of in Mark 9:1. But the arrival of the kingdom in that way will not mean that James and John, and many others too, can look forward to an easy utopia thereafter. On the contrary, they will still have to drink Jesus’s cup and be baptized with his baptism, in other words, to share his suffering and quite possibly his death. (This happened to James quite quickly, as we discover in Acts 12:2.)
It is in this context, as we have already seen, that we find the kingdom and the cross in close juxtaposition. Jesus contrasts the normal practice of pagan rulers with his own vision of power and prestige: “Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant” (10:43). This is at the center of his vision of the kingdom. And this is not only illustrated, but instantiated, by Jesus’s own vocation: “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’” (10:45). This saying, so far from being (as has often been suggested) a detached, floating nugget of “atonement theology” within early church tradition that Mark or his source has tacked on to a story about something else (the reversal of normal modes of power), is in fact the theologically and politically apposite climax to the whole train of thought. What we call “atonement” and what we call “kingdom redefinition” seem in fact to be part and parcel of the same thing. Ultimately, as we shall presently see in more detail, the cross is the sharp edge of kingdom redefinition, just as the kingdom, in its redefined form, is the ultimate meaning of the cross. (pp. 227-228)
I'm quoting Wright from Paul Nuechterlein's pages, where he says, " I would be remiss if I didn’t also pass along a paragraph that brilliantly summarizes and climaxes [Wright's] argument..." Here is glory:
All this, I submit, generates a vision of the cross and its achievement so large and all-embracing that we really ought to stand back and simply gaze at it. All the “theories” of “atonement” can be found comfortably within it, but it goes far, far beyond them all, into the wild, untamed reaches of history and theology, of politics and imagination. We have, alas, belittled the cross, imagining it merely as a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our own petty naughtiness or as an example of some general benevolent truth. It is much, much more. It is the moment when the story of Israel reaches its climax; the moment when, at last, the watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls see their God coming in his kingdom; the moment when the people of God are renewed so as to be, at last, the royal priesthood who will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love; the moment when the kingdom of God overcomes the kingdoms of the world. It is the moment when a great old door, locked and barred since our first disobedience, swings open suddenly to reveal not just the garden, opened once more to our delight, but the coming city, the garden city that God had always planned and is now inviting us to go through the door and build with him. The dark power that stood in the way of this kingdom vision has been defeated, overthrown, rendered null and void. Its legions will still make a lot of noise and cause a lot of grief, but the ultimate victory is now assured. This is the vision the evangelists offer us as they bring together the kingdom and the cross. (pp. 239-240)
Yes, Wright's imagery is full of the imaginings of our tradition, but it is grounded in the dirt of the world, planted next to the cross. There is no pretend friend here; instead, we are challenged to the core of our being to live differently and discover something.
There are implications: I can only speak with authority if I have loved. It is only in the loving and serving that I begin to learn (or not) if this vision of glory has begun to touch upon the Truth of what really is. (When I say "speak with authority," I mean, first of all, speak to myself.) Everything else, all the other cosmologies and theologies, fall apart— degenerate— into speculation or into rivalry over power and survival.
This is the source of my frequent criticisms of prosperity theology. Locating God's blessing in material wealth in this age not only ignores the obvious fact of the blessing of impoverished and persecuted Christians who, minus material blessing, speak with startling and challenging spiritual integrity. It bases theology in mammon; we pretend that the key building blocks of rivalry and violence are somehow a measure of blessing! What could possibly go wrong!? Possessions are power in our society. They are the underlying power of Empire, of that which is the not-kingdom of heaven.
Richard Beck quotes the Rule of St Benedict when he says
When a stranger comes, Christ comes.
In my own lectures, sermons and classes on hospitality I've routinely talked about this idea, how we see Christ in others, and how in our welcome of others we welcome Christ.
But from time to time, people have pushed back upon this formulation. When we see Christ in others are we not, in some sense, failing to see the other person directly and for who they are? Isn't this, to state the matter starkly, a subtle form of dehumanization? Or, at the very least, mishumanization (i.e., missing their particular humanity)?
So "outdoing one another in showing honour" (cf Ro 12:10) can also become its own form of rivalry and status acquisition. Beck notes that those who are righteous and placed among the sheep in the last great parable of Matthew 25, are unconscious that they have served the Christ.
In short, the vision in Matthew 25 is one where people are welcomed for themselves and not as a proxy for receiving Christ. That revelation comes later, as a shock. And one wonders if the ordering in the parable is what makes all the difference.
Only when we welcome someone in their particular humanity are we, in that moment, truly welcoming Christ.
So that when the elderly woman, smelly, impoverished, profoundly deaf arrived at the church last evening, seeking somewhere to spend the night, none of us thought this was the Christ. Our concern was how we would find accommodation for her on a wet night, at short notice, (and under that concern was the growing fear that perhaps we should take her home, if all else failed.) It's not so long since the era of the phrase "as cold as charity," when in judgement of those who did not measure up to idols of respectability and prosperity, our love was cold, frugal, and often withheld. Our only defence against discovering that we rejected the Christ is, as Jesus says in Mark, to "be slave of all." When faced with an old lady for whom you must write everything down— and things went down hill from there— it soon becomes clear that here we are dealing with a glory which transcends everything we have known, and which levels all the walls we seek to build to protect ourselves. It is in the most grounded places that we meet glory, but only if we serve all. For with those we reject, we reject glory and do not realise it has come near to us.
Andrew Prior (2018)
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