Texts: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:32-45
That’s how I’ve always read this text: as one more in a long line of bumbling disciple stories. In Mark’s gospel, the disciples are perpetually dim-witted; Jesus keeps trying to teach them, but they consistently don’t get it. And yet, as we read this story today, I can’t help but wonder: what if James and John are the only two in this story who are getting it?
This series of Passion predictions begins with Peter’s confession. Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then predicts for the first time that he will die in Jerusalem, and Peter, God bless him, demonstrates that he doesn’t yet understand what that means.
I think that just as this series opens, so it now concludes. James and John come to Jesus rightly asking to participate in Jesus’ glory. Notice that Jesus doesn’t correct them or rebuke them, but actually seems to accept their request. Like Peter, it’s pretty clear to Jesus (and to us) that they don’t quite know what they are asking for, but, just as Peter got the right answer, they now ask the right question. Perhaps the message of this story is not that James and John are too hungry for glory, but that we—like the other 10—are not hungry enough for it.
The sad truth is that, like the disciples, what we imagine when we think of glory is so small, so limited. We understand glory in terms of political power or wealth or fame. The glory we know is hard won and easily lost, it is diminished by those who would contest with us for it, it is rare and finite. When we imagine God, we so often think of just a more powerful version of ourselves: a God who basically agrees with me about what is right and wrong, a God who will smite all God’s enemies and rise above them to establish what I consider justice. Our idea of the glory of God is so often just more of the same privilege and violence, but on my side and with a bigger stick.
The disciples’ argument is just one example of the cycle of fear and retribution in which we are all stuck. The fear of losing what we have motivates us to fight against those who would take it from us. We fear losing our jobs to immigrants, we fear losing our safety or possessions to criminals, we fear losing our majority to the other party; and so we employ violence to keep those things from being taken from us. Violence is violence whether those battles are fought with words and insults, with dollars and delegates, or with weapons.
What the disciples fail to see is that for God, “glory” does not mean being the most powerful one in the room; and yet, this is the glory for which we long. The glory that God has in mind for us is instead an escape from this infinite loop of violence. Our problem is that we are satisfied with crumbs while God offers us an entire feast. As the argument among the disciples makes clear, it will take more than just a wise teacher or a prophet who speaks with the voice of God to break us out of this life of death. It will take blood.
We have been taught to hear Jesus’ words in a certain way. “The Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many.” A ransom, of course, is the price paid to free someone from captivity. We have been taught that Jesus came to be punished for our sins, to appease God’s sense of justice and so let us off the hook. In other words, we have been taught that Jesus offers his life to ransom us from God; but God is not the one who enslaves us. We are captive to our own desire for retribution and violence. We are enslaved by death.
Jesus ransoms us, then, not from God, but from our need for retribution, our need to be healed by the stripes and bruises of others. We see today how his gospel message upsets and threatens the social order. When he threatens the power of Judea and of Rome, the authorities there respond the same way the disciples did: with violence. Whereas the disciples responded with angry words, the Empire responds with a cross. When Jesus tells James and John that the places at his right and left hand had already been assigned, he didn’t mean that God had already chosen who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven: he meant that Rome had already reserved those crosses for others.
Jesus could use to violence to save himself; he could call down an army of angels or call on the peasantry to rise up—but that would only continue the cycle. Instead, he chooses to break the cycle. He chooses to serve humanity by giving us what we need most, freeing us from this never ending need to triumph over our enemies, no matter the cost to himself. We always have and always will have the need to conquer, and so for us, Jesus allows us to conquer him. Now, finally, the cycle is broken.
That is how Jesus reveals God’s true glory: not in the gleaming armor of a conqueror, but in the dirty, bloodstained visage of a man who has given everything to save those he loves—even his very life. The ransom that Jesus brings is not from the wrath of an angry, punishing God, but from us and our fear and anger that keeps us enslaved to violence and death.
For all that’s changed in the last 2000 years, there is much that has remained the same. We still seek glory by imposing our will over those who would do the same to us. Today more than in recent memory, our leaders seek to attain power not through cooperation or compromise, but by getting our majority in congress and forcing through our agenda just as the others do to us when they are in power. It’s the same old cycle of violence, just without the ugly crosses. But Jesus has ransomed us from this sorry state by showing us the way out: God’s faithful people will take over the world not through the love of power, but through the power of love. Violence begets only violence, and so on unto death. Love, on the other hand, brings life; and that life is eternal.
I said that we underestimate God’s glory, and the cross is no different. We constantly reduce the cross to the price of admission to God’s kingdom, the mechanism by which God sets the scales right or acquits us through a loophole. Or we take it as a general example of some benevolent truth, like “love is stronger than death” or “giving one’s life for one’s friends.” We fail to see that the cross is so much more: the kingdom is the cross; the cross is the kingdom. The two are one in the same, for refusing to continue the cycle of violence will always mean we end up bearing its brunt. And yet, this is Jesus’ glory.
When the sons of Zebedee make their request of Jesus, he promised them that they would drink the cup he drinks and be baptized with the baptism with which he had been baptized—a promise that is still good for us. Baptized into his death, we have died with him so that we can daily rise with him and share the endless life he continues to give. We come to this table to receive that life given for us, and as we eat and drink it, it changes us: rather than being like our overlords—the caesars and senators battling for power and glory—in this meal we are remade in the image of our Lord whose glory is not subjugation but service.
The death that once enslaved us has been defeated; its power over us is finished but that doesn’t mean it has disappeared. It still entices us, still seeks to convince us that only violence can save us, but Christ has forever ransomed us from that dark power. The victory is now assured. He lives forever as a testament to that victory. This is the glory he offers us—not a place at the top of the heap, but a toppling of the whole heap. God’s glory is not power the power to inflict death as a weapon, but a life free from the fear of death entirely.
Such a life can only be a life of service—service to friends, to strangers, even to enemies. Such a life can only be born of a deep and abiding love for all God’s children. It is a life too glorious for us to imagine; but thanks to Christ, it is not too glorious for us to live.