Updated: Feb 6
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 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?” 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; 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
This is the Gospel selection from the Episcopal Lectionary for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B 2018. In the numbering system that lists each Sunday in an ordinal fashion, this Sunday is referred to as Proper 24. It will next be read aloud in an Episcopal church by a priest on Sunday October 21, 2018. It is important because the disciples are seen to fear the death of Jesus that he foretold a third time. Jesus told them not to think in terms of fists of strength but hearts of service to others.
It is important to realize three background elements of this reading. First, this follows the third time Jesus told his disciples of his coming death. He did this after they had gone to the other side of the Jordan following the Feast of the Dedication (late December on the Roman calendar) and now they were beginning their return to Jerusalem for the coming Passover, about three months later. Jesus said his death would be in Jerusalem (Mark 10:33), so that factors into this reading.
Second, Matthew’s version of this request by James and John of Zebedee was made by their mother (Matthew 20:20-28), although one can assume she brought her two sons along with her to make the request we read here now. This means that James and John did make the request; but, rather than them going directly to Jesus, their mother initiated the discussion.
The presence of their mother is important as it shows that Jesus would not take his disciples away from their families for an extended period of time; and it shows that women were routine followers of Jesus, who assisted in the care and maintenance of Jesus’ ministry. Mark (Peter’s account of Jesus’ ministry) was not one to give much credit to those who were part of his Gospel, accompanying him or encountering him, as far as naming them or giving them specific recognition. However, it is important to know that women did follow Jesus and have influence on him and his disciples.
When one accepts that the Gospel of Luke is the story of Jesus’ ministry as seen through the eyes of his mother, Mary, one can see how chapter 18 of the Gospel of Luke recounts the same events as Mark’s chapter ten and Matthew’s chapter nineteen, including Jesus heading to Jerusalem. All recount how Jesus told the disciples again of his coming death. This means the mother of Jesus, minimally, crossed the Jordan to hear her son teach in the synagogue (probably one in Bethany Across the Jordan). She was present when Jesus made that announcement. Mothers were then welcomed to accompany their sons as Jesus traveled and the disciples followed their teacher.
John, on the other hand, told of Jesus escaping Pharisees attempting to grab hold of Jesus and stone him, when he said he was the Son of God at the Feast of the Dedication. John did not write of any teachings of Jesus while on the other side of the Jordan River; but he told of Jesus being alerted that Lazarus had fallen very ill. This absence of John says (minimally) that he was not an adult and certainly not John of Zebedee. Because Mother Mary knew where Jesus could be located, John was probably allowed to go with the party sent to tell Jesus of Lazarus having fallen ill, then returning to Bethany afterwards. Jesus would begin to return to Jerusalem because of that message and because it was time for the Passover Festival.
Jesus, we have come to tell you Lazarus is gravely ill and you are needed in Bethany.
Third, it should be recalled from the Gospel reading for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost that Jesus, while explaining how difficult it was for a rich man to get to heaven, concluded by saying, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” While that event might have been some time prior (perhaps a month or so), it should be remembered as a factor for James and John of Zebedee asking to be given Jesus’ approval to sit to his right and left. One can assume they recalled that teaching and were not asking for those positions as a favoritism.
When one has a three-dimensional view of the setting for this reading from Mark’s Gospel, one can get a feel for how James and John (and their mother) were not trying to gain favor in the eyes of the other disciples. They sought to be close to Jesus to protect him, after Jesus said the rulers of Jerusalem and the Gentile governor would take him and kill him (but after three days he would rise). Because Peter had tried to rebuke Jesus for talking such nonsense (to him), the direct approach of rebuking Jesus was known not to work (Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me Satan!). The motherly approach (the idea of James’ and John’s mother) was to ask Jesus to let the two strongest, most muscular disciples (burly from being sailors and fishermen) always stand closest to Jesus, where they would give up their lives in order to save their Teacher (Rabboni).
Seeing their request in this light, one is able to see them saying, “in your glory” as a statement of the “dignity, honor,” and “praise” that was due Jesus. They were not trying to get closer to an important person, as they were already close. The Greek written shows this separate segment of words as stating, “We might stay in the realm (sphere) of [a figurative statement, conditional of future “sitting”] under divine quality of you” (from “kathisōmen en tē doxē sou”). This makes it more evident that the request was as protection, so the disciples (and other followers of Jesus) would be able to defend the life of Jesus, as his “hands” of strength.
It should then be understood that Jesus knew full-well the intention of the request. The way it was worded, James and John (and their mother) had heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven,” (Matthew 18:19) and thought that if two disciples asked for the same thing, then they could coerce Jesus “to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus was talking then about Apostles who were joined with the Father in Heaven, while being on earth, as the definition of a Church. The disciples only understood earthly matters, not those heavenly. Therefore, Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”
To answer James and John (and their mother), Jesus asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” This question had nothing to do with asking, “Can you drink out of the same cup I drink from” or “Can you be baptized by the same water as I was baptized in?”
The “cup” (from “potērion”) that Jesus drank (the contents thereof) was the emotionally uplifting “wine” of God (where “wine” is an undistilled “spirit,” by alcohol content). The “baptism” that Jesus was “baptized with” was the Holy Spirit having merged with the soul of Jesus. At that point in time, none of the disciples could make the claim that their souls had been submerged into the Holy Spirit, so the Will of God was not then totally leading their actions.
When Jesus added, “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,” this was Jesus knowing that his “hands” would be Apostles in the name of Christ. Neither his right hand nor his left hand would be idly by his side, waiting like Secret Servicemen, to act after a threat had been exposed.
Little did the disciples know that Jesus had already touched the souls of many people in his three years of ministry (in all of his miracle healings) leaving the bodies of those souls as the first Apostles, who became the “hands” of Christ that extended to the right (Jews) and the left (Gentiles). They had all been “prepared” or “made ready” (from “hētoimastai”) to receive the Holy Spirit because their hearts had opened to God’s love and they were born of true faith.
By James and John saying “We are able,” they were not hearing Jesus asking them if they were prepared to receive the Holy Spirit (the “cup” and the “baptism”). They felt prepared to drink ceremonial wine and be figuratively washed clean in the Jordan River, as the two who would defend Jesus with their lives. The Greek word written by Mark, which was their answer to Jesus was the capitalized “Dynametha,” which said, “We are powerful” or “We have the strength.” Not only did that mean they were able-bodied men, but they were mentally prepared to die defending Jesus.
When the reading then says that the other ten disciples became angry at James and John, this says the two brothers had not planned this with the other disciples. Hearing their proposal made them angry and moved by great grief (from “aganaktein”), because their request made it seem that the other ten were thought to not be willing to die defending Jesus. Not only that, the other ten were not physically suited to be strongmen, meaning they could be harmed without being effective in that role. Their anger had nothing to do with James and John asking to sit next to Jesus at dinner time.
The disciples knew James and John of Zebedee were nicknamed by Jesus “Boanerges” – the sons of thunder. (Mark 3:17) This name, stemming from Aramaic (“bēn” [“sons”] and “regesh” [“of thunder, tumult”]), probably was because of how easy it was to tick them off, at which point they would get loud and break things. (Perhaps, they had a history of easily getting into fights, prior to following Jesus?)
When Jesus encountered Samaritans balking at making accommodations for the group, it was James and John that said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54) One would have to think their nickname spurred them to use the “fire from heaven” metaphor [lightening], as thunder comes before such strikes.
Jesus also chose the two brothers to go up the high mountain with him and Peter (Mark 9:2), probably because they were needed to carry most of the gear (tabernacles, rope, warm clothing, food, etc.). Their being picked because of the strength necessary to a somewhat dangerous journey safer means Jesus did not favor James and John of Zebedee over any of the other disciples. It was logical to pick the strongest men.
With that realized, the other ten knew James and John were going into the area of brains, when their forte was brawn. Asking to be the bodyguards of Jesus is what made the other disciples incensed at the thought that James and John (and mother) tried to maneuver it so they could keep Jesus alive by a show of manly-man strength. Their thick skulls kept them from realizing the dangerous position that would put the others in, when they were probably less physically imposing.
Jesus saw just reason for the ten disciples to be angry, so he called them all together and said, “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.” This is a somewhat misleading translation, which needs to be clarified.
The Greek word “katakyrieuousin” means “exercise authority over, be the master of, and hold in subjection,” as well as “lord it over.” This is followed by the Greek word “katexousiazousin” that means, “exercises power over” or “exercises authority over,” with abuse of those powers implied, such that oppression and strong domination can lead one to assume tyranny. Because the identification here is “ethnōn,” meaning “heathen people” or “foreigners,” such that “Gentiles” is translated rather than Romans, one needs to look closer at who Jesus was referring to when he said, “You know” or “You remember” (from the capitalized “Oidate“) to his disciples.
It is always easier to remember the past horrors than to see the present dangers.
In all of the four Gospels there is little mention of the Roman presence in Galilee and Judea, until Jesus is tried, whipped and crucified. It is understood that the Roman Empire was in control of all that was ancient Israel, but nothing was written about Romans accosting Jesus and his entourage, in Judea or Galilee, in Tyre, Caesarea Philippi, Gardara (or Gergasa of the Decapolis), or any of the places beyond the Jordan. The rulers of tyranny that all the disciples knew amounted to those in Jerusalem. Those rulers were those in power who knew Rome would rather give the Temple elite whatever they wanted, than not. Rome sent a governor that would appease Jerusalem’s rulers, simply to avoid another costly revolt led by religious zealots.
This makes the third announcement of Jesus’ coming death, which he recently repeated to his disciples, become important to understand, now that Jesus has talked about leaders who exercise authority over subjects, to the extent of being tyrants. Jesus had just recently told his disciples, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles.”
The word translated as “Gentiles” is “ethnesin,” which is a form of the same word Jesus just spoke (“ethnōn”), rooted in “ethnos.” Whereas the word “gentile” (in the lower case) is a general classification of races and peoples of nations that were non-Jewish, the implication was heavily leaned towards an identification of idolatry worship and not worshiping the same God of the Jews. When that classification is understood, the rulers of Jerusalem were capable of being put into this category of peoples, simply because they worshiped money and power. In the same way that Samaritans were deemed gentiles by the Temple Jews, the same shoe fit them in the eyes of God.
As the third (and final) time Jesus would predict his death, it is worthwhile to realize the details of the other two. The first time, Mark said Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) That focused solely on the Temple rulers.
Then, the second time Jesus said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:31b) That focused solely on the gentiles, who would be those executing the judgment brought about by the ones who truly exercised authority as tyrants, using injustice to make it seem otherwise.
Now, the third time, Jesus combined the two, so it would be the chief priest and the scribes that would condemn Jesus, handing him over to the gentiles to do their dirty work. This becomes the necessary background element that caused Jesus to importantly remind his students about the tyrants they knew personally, not some emperor far away in Rome.
It must be seen how Jesus pointing out the exercise of authority in oppressive ways was accepted as how Rome maintained control over a vast empire. The Romans would have no moral difficulties in executing condemned men, whether they would judge them by Roman laws or have some local yokels use their laws to judge their own. Still, for Jesus to break into this aspect of tyranny, one must realize that had absolutely nothing to do with James and John wanting to sit next to Jesus at dinner time.
Jesus saw their intent was to surround Jesus with brute force bodyguards, which the other ten saw as an open invitation for the Romans to suddenly have a problem with Jesus, as a leader of rebels against Roman domination. Jesus then was telling his disciples (paraphrasing), “We are not like them.” (Literally translated above, “It is not so among you.”) That meant, “We do not depend on might making right, in a physical sense. We are about the inner strength and power of God.”
Jesus told his twelve disciples, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” As Jews under the denomination of Rome and the Temple of Jerusalem, greatness was dependent on being a slave of all, as a servant of God. Jesus had sent all his disciples out to serve the needs of the Jews; not to incite an overthrow of oppression. Service meant giving spiritual strength to those suffering from oppression, thus freeing them to also serve God.
We are all slaves to gravity, even those born with silver spoons in their mouths. Wait until the next Great Depression and see how many will volunteer to be slaves, rather than be free to die.
This meant (even though they would not understand this meaning until after they were filled with God’s Holy Spirit) that Jesus said, “If you are to drink from the cup of salvation,” (remembering that Judas would not) “then you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit and be reborn as me.” Jesus was teaching his disciples to lead by example, where greatness came from serving the spiritual needs of seekers. Sacrifice of self made being a slave of all the lesson of Jesus.
To reach that point of commitment to God, there could be no revolt against the tyranny of Rome, or the tyranny of the Temple in Jerusalem. Greatness does not come from calling upon God to rain fire upon one’s enemies, such that one man’s punch given in anger deserved a punch likewise in return. Worldly power is exemplified by the pendulum, where one swing to the right means an equal and opposite swing to the left. The hands of linear time pound the drumbeat of both victory and defeat.
The Temple rulers saw themselves as the great among the Jews, just as the Romans saw themselves as the great of the western world; but (in time) they would dissolve into nothingness. While the Temple’s ruling class of Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, Sanhedrin, and high priest held the common Jews as their slaves, just as the Romans held their conquered as their slaves, (in time) they would become the slaves of others (Saracens and Barbarians). Those who would be filled with God’s Holy Spirit would be freed to eternal life, by submitting to marriage to God and living as His Son, Jesus Christ.
This is why Jesus then concluded this reading selection by stating, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus told his disciples that just as he came to serve others, they (in time) would be reborn as the Son of Man and likewise expected to serve God, the Father.
It would be that subjection to God – as a wife to one’s Husband, so the Father of all Sons of Man will come as Jesus Christ reborn – that would cease trying to use brute force to change the will of powerful worldly men. Subjection to God would mean the use of spiritual power to influence the masses to likewise forego rebellion against tyranny and serve God as true Christians. That holy service, just like the service of Jesus, would bring about persecution by the great, leading to a servant’s death. However, giving a life as the ransom paid for many other lives to be saved means eternal life and the greatness of Heaven.
As the Gospel selection for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, when one’s own personal ministry for the LORD should be underway – one has already become a hand of Christ reaching out to serve others – the message here is to stop trying to use strong-arm tactics to force one’s will onto others, is some ill-conceived plan to save Jesus from being killed. One cannot act like James and John of Zebedee (and their mother) and expect Jesus to grant your wish, just because it makes good sense personally, but regardless of how little thought one gives to others following Jesus.
As it is with all Scripture, the reader needs to put oneself in the role of the characters that are not Jesus. Rather than have a priest stand before a congregation and preach his or her personal politics, which uses the “servant of all means greatness” theme as reason to vote for this politician or hate that politician, while not thinking once about how many innocent lambs are slaughtered by such persecutory speech, one needs to tune those ideas out and simply serve God. When one serves God, God will have one serve those in need of God’s help.
When Jesus asked James and John (and their mother), “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” the knee-jerk response is exactly like theirs: “We are able.” Simply by walking around town or posting memes on social media that proclaim, “I am Christian,” one is saying, “I drink the holy wine of Communion (and eat the wafer too!), which is my right as a baptized (by holy water) Christian (denominational specific membership).” However, that is totally missing the point.
The only way to “drink the cup that [Jesus] drinks, or to be baptized with the baptism that [Jesus is] baptized with” is to be Jesus. That metaphor is not some fancy chalice kept in a ‘Jesus box’ in a church, washed clean by some altar guild member after each use, as it is not a physical cup that holds physical drink.
The cup is symbolic of deep-felt emotions, which cannot be touched physically. Science cannot observe the emotional center of the human body, although they can probe and monitor electrical impulses stimulated in the heart and brain and try to measure them. The cup that Jesus drank was the love of God within his heart-center, which came from Jesus being married to God, thus His servant forever. Thus, Jesus asked every reader of this reading (and everyone listening to this reading be read), “Have you married God, having submitted your self-ego fully to His Will, lovingly speaking only the truth, from the love of God that makes one’s cup runneth over with joy?”
People dance ecstatically and wave their arms in the air for a love of Jesus, but do they love God?
The ones dancing each should be Jesus Christ reborn, but if they are truly Christians, wildly dancing and praising Jesus as the one he or she loves, then that either says: a.) I am a liar and not Christian; or b.) My heart is not devoted to God, but to an idol named Jesus.
James and John of Zebedee were the same way. So too were the other ten disciples, including Judas Iscariot, such that each worshiped Jesus of Nazareth as a most holy prophet that could never be replaced by another human being. They were, after all (at that time), Jews and not yet Christians. They believed God is great, which meant they believed God sent them a great prophet named Jesus.
That is an opinion not exclusive to Christians. Jesus would be killed because most Jews did not believe in a Messiah, unless he was a strong man that would overthrow Rome and return the land of Israel to the remnant Jews. Jesus would not pass the physical test of immortality. The Muslims, unlike the Jews, say Jesus was a most holy prophet … just not the last great prophet. They think (like did James, John, their mother, and the other ten disciples of Jesus) with their brains (and brawn); not feeling the love of God in their hearts and souls.
Christians feel faith with their hearts and follow the insights of the Christ Mind. They go beyond the limits of belief (the words of others), feeling a presence they had never felt before, which is more than human emotions can attach a word to. They see in inexpiable ways, with inaudible whispers leading them to go places their brains would have never thought for them to go. They experience God, so there is no need to memorize His words through others, when a Christian has the same knowledge of God as did all true prophets. To worship a prophet then means to take one’s eyes off God.
When Jesus asked James and John of Zebedee (and mother), “[Can you] be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” one only has to remember the words of John the Baptist. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) Again, baptism is a word that means “submerged,” implying water. But the Holy Spirit and fire do not represent a physical “dipping,” but a spiritual transformation.
Few people understand the Holy Spirit. While they can grasp the Father and the Son of the Trinity … because they have physically seen fathers and sons … there is difficulty explaining the Holy Spirit to doubters.
Does that mean belief in ghosts?
Many Christians cannot answer that question, nor can they explain the Holy Spirit to non-believers. The reason is few people are indeed filled with the Holy Spirit.
Again, dancing wildly with ones hands raised in the air is not an indication of being filled with the Holy Spirit. The hands of God reach out to seekers, not towards a sky or ceiling.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit comes after one’s marriage to the love of God. It is when one’s soul is submerged with God’s Spirit, so the two are one. Sin becomes a thing of the past. That union brings the resurrection of God’s Son in a new servant in his name. One serves God as Jesus reborn, which means “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” It means the expectation has been set, “to give [one’s] life [as] a ransom for many.”
It does not mean being a pastor of a megachurch. It does not mean having a need to demand donations for another new private jet. It does not mean greasing one’s path to a fast track to riches, vacation homes, and fancy cars. It does not mean being so poor that others will not take the time to listen to what one’s message from God says.
Being married to God and baptized by the Holy Spirit means raising a family of Christians, who may or may not be one’s own physical flesh and blood. It means loving God with all one’s heart and wearing His face always. It means telling the truth and shedding the light into a world of lies and darkness. It means being persecuted for doing that, but with nary a worry.