Wed, October 13, 202115 mins readFather Hans Buob

Of Serving and Ruling

Biblical Homilies on the Sunday Gospels in Reading Year B

Bible passages


Mark 10, 35-45

Biblical Homilies


Of Serving and Ruling

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish (me) to do for you?" They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." 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; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared."  When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you 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."

Let us listen again to this Word of God, because the Word of God on Sunday wants to remind us of things that are important on the path of discipleship. It is always about rethinking, about reorientation, so that we can really follow Christ seriously. Therefore, we should really take these words of God seriously and not just listen to them and think: "Yes, I know, I've heard it before!", but think: "What does the Lord want to say to me today, where I now stand in my following of Christ?"

“Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." (cf. verse 35)

The two brothers approach Jesus demanding: "We want you to do something specific!" This is very massive. This request must cause a tension in the others who hear it, as is expressed later.

“He replied, "What do you wish (me) to do for you?" (cf. verse 36)

Jesus does not give them a promise, but he asks about the content of the request. The two have an unreserved trust in Jesus' authority to act as he wills. They trust him that he can act, that no one can prevent him from doing so. But Jesus does not confirm this.

“They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." (cf. verse 37)

In Greek, this is clearly expressed in the command form: "Give us!" So, it is a demanding imperative that they address to Jesus. This is strange. Literally, it says, "In the glory of your kingdom, let one of us sit on your right and the other on your left." The heavenly glory is meant. Jesus' reference to martyrdom in the next verse presupposes this interpretation: "Can you drink the cup that I drink?" i.e., go through death for me? So, what must be meant is that which is coming upon him. It should also be quite clear in John that he means glory, Jesus' glory with the Father. In the verses before, Jesus speaks explicitly of his death and resurrection. And the demand of these two disciples sounds stubborn and selfish, as if they wanted to beat the others to it. It could also be meant differently. Let us try to understand their request from the apostle John here, from the disciple of love who rested at Jesus' breast. It is expressly said of him on Easter morning: "He saw and believed!" (Jn 20,8) Peter, on the other hand, ran away again. John, in his love for the Lord, recognises things more quickly than the others. Later, when Jesus is standing by the lake, he says to Peter: "It is the Lord!" (Jn 21,7) Again and again it is he who recognises more quickly. Recognises his love. And this love of John for the Lord made him understand Jesus' word of death and resurrection more deeply. So, this love urged him to simply ask Jesus: "I want to be always very close to you!" Love always wants to be very close to the beloved. If John understood Jesus' words of his resurrection, his request could very well be understood in this way, especially because the Greek literally says: "Let me sit beside you in the glory of your kingdom." The word "doxa" always refers to the glory with the Father into which Jesus returns at his resurrection. That John would want to take his brother into the kingdom is understandable. So, the massive imperative: "We want you to grant us a request" can also be an expression of the strong longing of love. Love does not say "perhaps", but it wants with determination. It presses into the proximity of the Lord. The Lord may have sensed this. He did not reject them, he did not reproach them, but he answered with understanding:

“Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (cf. verse 38)

By "baptism", it is meant the baptism of his death. Jesus lovingly asks them about their willingness to go with him through death into glory, because his death and resurrection had spoken to them before: "Can you go this way with me, through this baptism of blood into my death? Can ye enter with me through death into glory?" What do you answer?

“They said to him, "We can." 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;” (cf. verse 39)

Without thinking, they replied, "We can." That is typical love. Love is ready for anything. "I give my life for you" (Jn 13,37) Peter had said before, even if he could not do it then. This "we can" is an expression of how love risks everything. From the overall context here, this passage may very well be understood to mean that it is John's love that recognised deeper things and that urged to always be with the Lord. Jesus confirms it to them. They will be baptised with the same baptism. They will die a martyr's death, although John did not die a martyr's death. He was martyred, but he did not die of it. However, this shows that even a life of affliction and persecution - and that was John's life, he was indeed dipped in boiling oil, he was burnt on Patmos, etc. - it shows that such a life is also a way of martyrdom. Pope Gregory the Great stated, "They are all martyrs, some by the sword, others by patience." In this respect it is true of both brothers. James was martyred, John died normally, but John also went through persecution and tribulation.

“but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." (cf. verse 40)

Now Jesus refers them to the Father. It is not his business to determine who sits on his right and left, which is what the two brothers have asked for. That is the Father’s business.

“When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.” (cf. verse 41)

That is understandable. But it is important that this passage really makes me think and ask myself: "Is this longing of John in me, this longing to be where the Lord is? Is the longing growing in me at all? Am I allowing it to grow? Do I do something for it - and ask: Lord, let me always be where you are?" After all, he promised: "You will be where I am." (cf. Jn 12,26 et al.) But John's love presses even closer to the Lord - "at your right hand, at your left - not just there in your kingdom, but with you, very near to you." Is that my longing? How often do you think of God present in you? Do you rejoice in his presence? Do you always want to be consciously in his presence, every day? Or, when you walk past a church - do you urge yourself to be with him, to look in briefly, to greet him briefly, to worship him? Do you push yourself to be near him? Or do you traipse past without thinking anything - like at an ordinary house? Let us examine ourselves! Do we have such a longing as John? Then we may confidently say to the Lord: "Lord, make haste! I want to be with you completely. Make it work!" He will indeed tell me, "That is not my business, that is the Father's business," but he will rejoice in my longing to be so close to him. The other disciples obviously understood it differently. They have become jealous and envious. They don't seem to be thinking of what John must have been thinking of: Of eternal glory, and what comes after baptism with blood, that is, after martyrdom. They were probably thinking of the earthly kingdom of the Messiah, which they still expected. This is shown by Jesus' subsequent teaching, he now speaks about the earthly kingdom of God. It is very clear that the disciples became envious because they thought John and Andrew meant an earthly kingdom, because they are on their way to Jerusalem. They expected the Messiah to proclaim a kingdom there. After all, he needs ministers and similar people for that. The other disciples were thinking of this kingdom. That is why Jesus goes into it in the following:

"You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.” (cf. verse 42)

Jesus now calls all twelve to him. He again uses the current situation with the disciples to give a teaching on the basic principles and attitudes in the kingdom of God in this world, speaking of the abuse of power by the powerful.

But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. " (cf. verse 43-44)

As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus now teaches about the rules of the Kingdom of God. We find exactly the same teaching already in the Sermon on the Mount: Different rules apply in the kingdom of God than in the world. In the world, the powerful rule over their fellow human beings; in the kingdom of God, the powerful are to serve. Whoever wants to be great should be the servant of all. He who wants to be first should even be the slave of all, thus serving them as a matter of course without demanding or even receiving anything in return. Only the one who leads by serving and provides by serving is entrusted by Jesus with the sheep. After his resurrection, Jesus says to Peter at the lake of Tiberias: "Feed my lambs! Feed my sheep!" (Jn 21,15-18) In Greek, two different words are used here for "feed". One means "to feed and lead to pasture", the other "to lead and protect in service". He who wants to be first is to lead and provide servantly. This is the basic principle of the Kingdom of God and the basic attitude of those who have a mission in the Kingdom of God.

"For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." (cf. verse 45)

The innermost core of service is shown by Jesus himself in his life, namely: "...to lay down his life as a ransom for many". (Mt 20,28) That is the innermost core of service - risking everything, laying down one's life. Not - serve people a little bit, but live your own life. No - to give one's life completely. The Greek word for "giving one's life" means not only the bloody martyrdom at the end of one's life, but our whole life, all hardship and persecution, our work, our prayer - simply everything that is part of being a Christian. With this sentence Jesus gave John and James an answer to their request, so that their longing to be completely with him could be fulfilled. They are not to look now at what is to come. Their longing should first be to serve the kingdom of God with their whole lives, to give their lives and be baptised with the baptism with which Christ is baptised. That should also be our longing in this world. Some people worry terribly about how they will get to heaven. But the love and mercy of God will take care of that if we seek first the kingdom of God. Everything else is given to us in addition. In Matthew 6,33 Jesus tells us, "But you must seek first his kingdom and his righteousness; then all else will be added to you." Our desire should be to give our lives completely for the kingdom of God. Then everything else will be given to us. ∎