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Request of James and John to Jesus (Mark 10:35-45)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus, James, and John

Jesus, James, and John

    35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. 36 And he said unto them, What would ye that I should do for you? 37 They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.
    38 But Jesus said unto them, Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? 39 And they said unto him, We can. And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: 40 But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.
    41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John. 42 But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. 43 But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: 44 And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. 45 For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Jesus on Power & Service

In chapter 9 we saw the apostles arguing over who would be the “greatest” and Jesus admonished them not to confuse spiritual with worldly greatness. Apparently they didn’t heed him because now two — James and John, the brothers — go behind the others’ backs to get Jesus to promise them the best spots in heaven.

First they try to get Jesus to agree to do for him “whatsoever” they desire — a very open-ended request that Jesus is smart enough not to fall for (curiously, Matthew has their mother make this request — perhaps to relieve James and John of the burden of this act). When he finds out exactly what they want, he tries to dissuade them by alluding to the trials he will endure — the “cup” and “baptism” here are not meant literally but are rather references to his persecution and execution.

I’m not sure that the apostles understand what he means — it’s not as though they have ever displayed much perceptiveness in the past — but they insist that they are prepared to go through whatever Jesus himself will go through. Are they really ready? That’s not clear, but Jesus’ comments might be meant to look like a prediction of James’ and John’s martyrdom.

The other ten apostles, naturally, are outraged over what James and John have tried to do. They don’t appreciate the brothers' going behind their backs to achieve personal advantage. This suggests, I think, that not all was well within this group. It seems that they didn’t get along all of the time and that there was infighting that was not reported.

Jesus, however, uses this occasion to repeat his earlier lesson about how a person who wants to be “great” in the kingdom of God must learn to be the “least” here on earth, serving all others and putting them ahead of one’s own needs and desires. Not only are James and John rebuked for seeking their own glory, but the rest are rebuked for being jealous of this.

Everyone is displaying the same bad character traits, just in different ways. As before, there is the problem with the sort of person who behaves in such a manner precisely in order to obtain greatness in heaven — why would they be rewarded?

This is one of the few occasions where Jesus is recorded as having much to say about political power — for the most part, he sticks to religious issues. In chapter 8 he spoke against being tempted by the “leaven of the Pharisees...and of the leaven of Herod,” but when it comes to specifics he has always focused on the problems with the Pharisees.

Here, however, he is speaking more specifically of the “leaven of Herod” — the idea that in the traditional political world, everything is about power and authority. With Jesus, however, it’s all about service and ministering. Such a critique of traditional forms of political power would also serve as a critique of some of the ways in which Christian churches have been set up. There, too, we often find “great ones” who “exercise authority upon” others.

Note the use of the term “ransom” here. Passages like this have given rise to the “ransom” theory of salvation, according to which Jesus’ salvation was meant as a blood payment for the sins of humanity. In a sense, Satan has been allowed dominion over our souls but if Jesus pays a “ransom” to God as a blood sacrifice, then our slates will be wiped clean.

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