Gospel Reading for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 10:35-45

Notes on the Lectionary with Deacon Lincoln Anderson. Visit the series page at AnglicanCompass.com/NotesOnTheLectionary

And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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.” (Mark 10:39–40, ESV)

James’ and John’s Request

Our lesson for this Sunday begins right after Jesus has predicted his death and resurrection for the third time. James and John, after hearing that Jesus will be arrested, beaten, and then killed, ask Jesus for a favor. Our initial reaction might understandably be incredulous. We have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story, and the full gravity of what is going on.

The Son of God tells his followers how he will save them and all humanity from eternal death, and James and John want more. Jesus asks them to name their request instead of rebuking them and they tell him they want to sit beside Jesus, one on his right and the other on his left, in his glory. They seem to be chiefly asking for positions of honor and authority once Jesus reveals his glory to all the world.

Remember that James and John, with Peter, were both present for the Transfiguration. They know more than any of the other of the Twelve, more than any of the other disciples, that Jesus is more than he appears to be to the human eye. The fact that they were the first to witness his glory may be why Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for asking for a favor. We interpret their request as jockeying for position, but perhaps there’s at least an element of simply wanting to get back to that experience and be as close as possible to the Lord’s glory as possible.

The Cup that I Drink

Jesus still does not rebuke them outright after they make their request. He tells them that they do not know what they are asking, and asks if they are able to follow him into humiliation, persecution, and death. In the text, Jesus asks “are you able to drink the cup that I drink…?” This cup is a reference to his passion and crucifixion, which James and John have just heard him foretell for a third time. They say “We can” and Jesus tells them that they will indeed drink from the cup. However, Jesus cannot grant them to sit at his right or his left.

The Church Fathers see this reference to “the cup” in a couple of ways. First, it is a reference to the humiliation of the crucifixion. Augustine calls this cup “the cup of humility and suffering.” Second, this cup is ultimately a benefit and blessing to those who would drink it. One of the famous martyrs of the second century, Polycarp of Smyrna, blessed the Lord because he was “deemed worthy… to take my part… in the cup of your Christ, for ‘resurrection to eternal life…'”

James and John probably believed Jesus to be asking if they would fight alongside him no matter the cost, and this is why they answer boldly “we can.” Though they may have answered somewhat rashly, not fully understanding Jesus’ meaning, their answer is to be our answer. Remember – whoever keeps his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for the sake of the Gospel will find it.

The Upside Down Kingdom

The other ten apostles hear of this exchange and become angry. Jesus uses this conflict as an opportunity to teach them about the difference of social economy in the Kingdom of God as compared to the kingdoms of the world. Unlike the Gentiles, the disciples are not to lord their authority over one another. Instead, the person who seeks greatness in the Kingdom must serve everyone. The person who would be highest must regard themself least of all. The archetype of this greatness in humility is Christ himself.

Lately, we have heard of various leaders in the Church who have not followed this teaching. They have lorded their authority over others, and this has led to all manner of disorder, disruption, and disaster. When leaders in the Church do not listen to Jesus’ call to be servants rather than masters, abuse of all manner runs rampant. Darkness grows deeper and light is hidden. No church body is immune to this – in the ACNA, we have had past instances of sexual harassment from clergy and there are ongoing investigations into mishandling of allegations sexual and spiritual abuse at different levels of leadership.

The antidote is contained in the cup. Perhaps not all of us will face a martyr’s death. Maybe we won’t see systemic persecution such as the church has seen in the past, which our Christian siblings see in other parts of the world today.. Even so, the heart of a disciple who would lead in Christ’s Church must be willing to drink from the cup of humility and suffering. It is only with that cup in view that we can be saved from pride and be steered from causing great harm to those we love.

“The Liberty of that Abundant Life”

The Collect for this Sunday may seem disjointed from the message of this Gospel lesson. What does the cup of the Lord or his baptism have to do with being set free from the bondage of our sins? How does the picture of servant leadership give us “the liberty of that abundant life which [God] has made known to us in our Savior Jesus Christ”? Please feel free to answer in the comments!

If you have suggestions or feedback for how to make this column better, please also feel free to post that in the comments!