35James 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.”
41When 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.”
This has been the year of Mark. The first half of Mark’s Gospel focuses on the healing and liberating work of Jesus, the son of man, setting people free from their illnesses and demons – whatever keeps ‘em down. The second half of mark focuses on Jesus Passion, suffering, death, and resurrection. What happens on the way to Jerusalem and once they get there.
The section we’ve been reading from the last few weeks, chapters 8,9, and 10, is the pivot. Jesus is trying to reorient the disciples for this turn towards Jerusalem. Trying to really explain to the disciples what God’s kingdom is about, what the cross means, and what is the heart of Jesus mission. This upside down way of understanding and existing in the world. “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. And the upside down way that God is about to interact with his creation – For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
James and John want security. They want to know they’ll be taken care of in the end, and that they’ll receive just reward for their loyalty. They know that there is security with Jesus – they just have the wrong of idea of what security means to Jesus. They want success. James and John believe in Jesus – they believe he will succeed – they just have the wrong idea of what success means to God.
What does it mean to be a successful disciple? What does it mean to be a successful church? Does it mean we have thousands of people? Does it mean we have state-of the-art facilities? Does it mean we have programs for every age and interest? Does being a successful church mean that we have to look like a successful business? When it comes to God’s idea of success — a successful church is a servant church. A church that not only serves its members, members serving each other, but that the church serves the world as well, and serves the community in which God has placed it. It is not money, or membership or programs or marketing that makes a church successful, but the servant heart of a church that beats in time with God’s. A humble church. Dare I would even say, a suffering church.
Jesus is more than an exemplary servant. He also is the suffering servant, who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” This phrase is important for thinking about how Jesus understood his ministry. It has often been read in comparison with the “servant” in Isaiah 53. Exactly how does the servants death “ransom” the people? How are we delivered and saved?
The first way Christians understood what that meant was that Jesus pays the ransom to the devil so God can get us back, and then God blows up the devil’s death dealing plan with the resurrection, winning the victory over the devil once and for all. But this line of thinking puts God and the devil on equal playing fields, and God plays the game, and pays the ransom with, um, his child?
The second way that Christians started to understand the idea of a ransom is that Jesus death paid God. It had nothing to do with the devil being owed at all, but that our sin put such a hole in our relationship with God that we could never fill or fix it. Both human and divine, Jesus could and had to “pay it all” so the song goes. One of those two ways is how most Christians today think about salvation, but what did Jesus have in mind when he says his life is a ransom for many?
How does this jive with the beginning of Mark, and Jesus showing that the kingdom is near by setting people free. Jesus rejects the Roman kingdom way of military domination and shows of power and wealth, and talks about another way. He redefines greatness as servanthood, and power as vulnerability. When Jesus says he has come to give his life as a ransom for many, that does mean a payment, but it means a payment that sets free someone in bondage.
We cling to our own ideas of greatness and power and “ what we are actually clinging to is prison bars, from the inside of a self-imposed cell” (Strange New World Podcast, Matthew Meyer Boulton, SALT Project) Its not the devil and its definitely not an angry God that Jesus is freeing folks from in the gospel of Mark, its their own blindness and sin. Their own selfishness and their own ignorance. When we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, we begin to understand this. The ransom is paid, but we keep clinging to the bars. Just like the disciples we keep trying to frame Jesus saving ministry in a way that will get us a good spot, safe and secure, with the money and power we need to keep it.
Jesus shows us the way of servanthood the whole way to the cross, to show us that this way of life cannot be defeated even by death. Maybe Jesus “buys us back” from the world – by showing us a way out of the devastating cycle of looking for glory, joy, and peace on the world’s terms by teaching and showing us how to receive by giving, how to lead by serving, and how to find our lives by losing them for the sake of the people around us that God loves so much.