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.”
“No one man should have all that power; the clock’s ticking I just count the hours…no one man should have all that power” – famous words rapped by Kanye West in his 2005 Hip Hop hit “POWER”. “No one man should have all that power.” Now of course Kanye is referring to himself; you would be hard-pressed to find him talking about anyone other than himself. Kanye’s hubris aside, however, we’d be naive to believe that there isn’t some level of truth to Mr. West’s declaration. Given his celebrity and public profile, coupled with his wealth, Kanye enjoys a certain level of power, and though we might not share in that power, we have to admit that we share in his infatuation with power. No one (wo)man is immune to the allures of power. Look at your neighbor and say, “No one man should have all that power.” Now look at your other neighbor and say, “Unless it’s me.”
Perhaps the best indication of our infatuation with power is in what we watch on television. Just look at some of the most popular (read most viewed) dramas of the last 5yrs: House of Cards – a political drama about State Representative and House Majority Whip Francis Underwood who connives, kills, and conspires his way to the United States presidency; Game of thrones – a medieval drama with the largest cast on TV and the most deaths per episode, all for rule over the Seven Kingdoms and the Iron Throne; or Empire – network television’s most popular new drama where music mogul Lucious Lyons looks to pass on his empire to one of his sons as they vie and compete for dad’s approval; and finally 50 Cent’s Power – a narco-drama about James St. Patrick “Ghost”, a prominent NYC nightclub owner by night, a drug kingpin to the elite by day who struggles with the decision of getting out the drug game to go legit, while his life crumbles around him. All of these dramas have 1 of 3 things in common: the perpetual pursuit of power, the resistance to relinquish power, and the struggle to retain power. We love power; to have it, to watch it – we love power. But these dramas about power aren’t the first of their kind.
Many biblical scholars affirm the gospel of Mark to be an “apocalyptic drama” of sorts given the nature of the events leading up to the climatic end to the life of Jesus. Our text this morning begins with an appeal for power from two of Jesus’ disciples. It reads again: (Read scripture above). No one man should have all that power, the clock’s ticking for Jesus as he recounts the hours until his crucifixion.
Now to put this in context, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the temple-based aristocracy and he knows exactly what awaits him when he gets there. We know this to be true because Jesus has already predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection 3 times: 1st in Mark chapter 8:31 and again in 9:31, and finally in the verses immediately preceding our gospel this morning where Jesus gives his most detailed account of the crucifixion: 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 who will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. Jesus is fully aware you see, of what’s about to go down, but time and time again the disciples display that they just don’t get it.
You’ll recall in Mark 8 when Jesus first predicts his death, Peter rebukes Jesus for doing so and Jesus in turns reprimands Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan! You do not have the concerns of God in mind, but merely human concerns.” The disciples don’t get it. The 2nd instance of Jesus’ fatal prediction in verse 9 is followed by the disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them. Really? Jesus just told you for a second time that he would be crucified, die, and rise again, and you respond by having a popularity contest?? The disciples don’t get it. Then Jesus, for a 3rd time, predicts his death beginning in verse 32 of the 10th chapter of Mark, and here comes Zebedee’s sons, James and John requesting privileged places of authority in seats at Jesus’ right and left. The disciples just don’t get it.
Instead of acknowledging Jesus’ anticipation of suffering and death, they imagine a triumphant, regal scene with themselves sitting in positions of honor and power at King Jesus’ right and left hand. They recognize that glorification awaits Jesus. The authority he has exhibited in his ministry will lead to something big, perhaps to a royal rule, and they conspire to capitalize on that. No one man should have all that power; no one man is exempt from the allures of power, not even the disciples. Perhaps James and John may have been thinking of something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8), but we know that’s not how this story ends. In this drama, the only ones to be at Jesus’ left and right will be the bandits crucified with him when he is “enthroned” as “The King of the Jews.” (15:27)
Now in James’ and John’s defense, they’re not the only disciples enticed by visions of a triumphant reign, for the rest of the Twelve fume over the brothers’ bid to outflank them in prominence. Verse 41 reads that “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” But Jesus quickly corrects their vision by addressing their desire for power and prestige and holding up the conventions of Roman sociopolitical authorities as negative examples. He comments on the nature of human power–the kind of power that will soon crush him in the political spectacle of his trial and execution. “They regularly “overpower” and “tyrannize” others (10:42)” Jesus says. They rely on coercion and control to maintain their dominance and prerogatives. Jesus puts his life and death, along with the lives and sufferings of his followers, in complete opposition to such expressions of power.
In absolute contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants and slaves, even if that life means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield power. Jesus’ final line–“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”–connects to his preceding words about service and enslavement, indicating that his death will be exemplary for such a way of living. His death will exemplify the violence and resistance his teaching and ministry elicit from those who hold power over society, and it will exemplify a radical renunciation of authority and privilege as we know it. Jesus’ death delivers us from the constellations of social and political power that human beings concoct to control each other. But perhaps even greater than that, Jesus’ death defeats the power of death itself.
Now if you’re like the disciples, so enticed by proximity to Jesus’ power, that you still don’t get it, let me help you out. In the 45th and final verse of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 3 simple clarifications about ransom and I’ll take my seat:
- When Jesus said “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”, he didn’t mean whips and chains and bondage and suffering. (Talk about slavery, and plantation capitalism or the commodification of [black] suffering) Rather, it’s better to think of Jesus as one who takes the form of a slave himself and was obedient to the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8) thereby providing the ransom that frees us who were slaves of this world and captive to death. When Jesus gives his life as a ransom, he frees us not to become great as the world understands greatness, but to serve others as slaves of Christ.
- The act on the cross was not just about the atonement for our sins. Don’t get me wrong, Christ’s death and resurrection was certainly about the forgiveness of sin, but that’s not all it was about. Jesus’ mention of a “ransom” indicates that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system. The word in question, ransom – in its Greek form – indicates that his death does something; it secures a release. The meaning of the word “ransom” here is historically misunderstood to mean a specific type of payment as it’s used in other readings. In those readings, Jesus’ death is transactional, a payment made to satisfy the penalties accrued by human sin or to repay something owed to God. However, the explicit context in which this statement appears is about power and servitude, not the problem of sin or the need to secure forgiveness; a liberation wrought by divine strength, not by payment. Jesus therefore declares that God, through Jesus’ death, will free people from oppression and captivity to another power, restoring them to membership in the community that corresponds to God’s reign. Repentance and forgiveness are part of Jesus’ proclamation and ministry (1:4; 2:5; 3:38), but Mark presents these topics as subordinate pieces in a more comprehensive apocalyptic episode where human existence is transformed by the incursion of God’s reign and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ –liberating us not just from the enslavement of our own sin, but from the enslavement of the sins of others who wield oppressive power.
- Jesus didn’t give his life just for you and only you. The mention of Jesus as a ransom on behalf of many emphasizes again the cosmic implications of Jesus’ death. Here, “many” has the sense of “all” or “everyone”. (Talk about selfish faith, accompaniment, My story vs their story vs God’s story, oppressed people).
So the next time you tune into HBO to watch the dynasties sacrifice as many people as necessary to win the Iron Throne on Game of Thrones, remember that drama is not this drama, because in this drama only one sacrifice was necessary for the ransom of many by the King of King’s who sits on the most high throne. The next time you log into your Netflix account to watch Francis do whatever it takes to be first on House of Cards, remember that drama is not this drama, because in this drama to be first means to be last and to be first of all means to be servant of all. When you skip bible study on Wednesday to watch the Lyon’s sons compete to sit at their father’s left and right hand on Empire instead, remember that drama isn’t this drama, because in this drama those spots are only for those it has been prepared for by the divine. And when you turn to Starz to watch Ghost struggle live a double life on Power, remember that drama isn’t this drama, because in this drama the only true power is possessed by the Holy Ghost. Now look at your neighbor and say, “No one man should have all that power”; now look at your other neighbor and say, “unless it’s Jesus”. Because power in Jesus is power to the people. Amen.