To understand the original impact of Sunday's Gospel (Mark 10:35-45), we must go back five and six weeks to check his other prediction/misunderstanding/clarification passages.

In the two prior readings, taken from chapters 8 and 9, Mark teaches that we are to imitate Jesus' death by being open to whatever God asks of us and by accepting the presence of the risen Jesus in those whom society judges unimportant.

Now, Mark takes dying one step further.

Wrong request

James and John are given the opportunity to misunderstand what it means to die with Jesus. They represent those leaders in Mark's Roman community concerned only for their own "glorification."

Jesus cuts down their power-grabbing request with the statement, "You do not know what you are asking." In other words, "You're asking for the wrong thing."

Instead of handing over the "glory seats," Jesus reminds the pair of the dying that discipleship entails. He uses metaphors of an immersing baptism and a strong drink. Then He clarifies discipleship: "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be among you."

Though the historical Jesus never intended to found a church as we know it, He still presumed His followers would eventually develop some form of "institutional structure." What-ever shape it would take, Mark was certain Jesus didn't want it to be the authoritarian structure some were imposing on the community for which he was writing.

Christian authority must be exercised completely differently from how authority is exercised in any other society. The only pattern we have is the authority Jesus practiced.

"Whoever wishes to be great among you," Jesus insisted, "will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

We can only guess how frequently Jesus reflected on Deutero-Isaiah's Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant, and how often He applied the words to Himself and His ministry (Isaiah 53:10-11). "Because of his affliction," the slain prophet's followers wrote, "he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear."

Jesus led by weakness, not strength. As the author of the second reading puts it (Hebrews 4:14-16), "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin."

Jesus became weak to help us value our own weakness. He could lead us only by giving Himself for us.

Becoming weak

When I'm treating Sunday's Gospel passage in class, I ask my students, "How much is a ransom?" They quickly answer, "It's as much as the person ransomed is worth." Jesus, as our ransom, finds His value in the value of the people He serves. In order to live, He commands His followers to die by completely making themselves weak for others.

As much as Mark had problems with those who were assuming an authority posture contrary to the example of the servant/slave Jesus, he's probably spinning in his grave knowing how - a little over 100 years after he wrote his Gospel - some Christian churches began to adopt the authority structure of the Roman Empire, which not only killed Jesus, but was the antithesis of everything He believed in and died for.

Nothing could be further from the mind and plans of Jesus.

(10/19/06)