James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Jesus. ‘Master,’ they said to him, ‘we want you to do us a favour.’ He said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’ ‘You do not know what you are asking’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?’ They replied, ‘We can.’ Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptised you shall be baptised, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.’
When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John, so Jesus called them to him and said to them: ‘You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’Mk 10:35-45
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus implores his disciples to commit themselves to a life of humility and service. In this episode, James and John ask Jesus for places of honour, i.e. to be seated next to him in his future Kingdom. Such a request is at odds with Jesus’ teachings and it evokes rancor and disharmony among the other disciples. The incident leads Jesus to clarify the true nature of Christian leadership (v.37): that his disciples are not to imitate the pomp and tyranny of Gentile rulers (v.42), but rather are to follow the humility and service that he himself has modeled during his ministry (v.45).
‘The cup that I must drink’ (v.38) is a metaphor for Jesus’ forthcoming passion. Similarly, the phrase ‘with the baptism’ symbolises his impending immersion in trial and suffering. Furthermore, Jesus forewarns James and John that they too will experience persecution and suffering. James will be beheaded by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2) and John will be sent into exile to the island of Patmos by the Emperor Domitian (Rev. 1:9).
Mark’s Gospel makes explicit the interrelationship between suffering and discipleship. Jesus is the suffering servant prophesised by Isaiah (Is 52-53) and the Cross becomes a central motif. Jesus challenges his disciples “if anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34), a challenge that was especially real for the Marcan community which witnessed and experienced great tests of faith in the face of Roman persecution. In writing to and for his community, Mark was also determined to ensure that there was a recognition that like Jesus, true disciples were not only called to the Cross but to service and generosity, ‘anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant’
Director, Mission and Identity