Lent 5 · Mark 10: (32-34) 35-45 · March 29, 2009
By David R. Maxwell
The Slave of All The Passion Prediction (Mark 10:32-34)
This is the third time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in Mark. The first time, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him (Mk 8:31-32). The second time, the disciples do not understand and are afraid to ask him about it (Mk 9:31-32). The third time, his prediction is followed by James’ and John’s request to sit at his right and his left in his glory. Mark does not specify that this request happens immediately after Jesus’ passion prediction, so it is hard to know whether James and John are proceeding in callous disregard of what Jesus just said. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of Jesus’ words with the request of James and John follows the same pattern as the first two passion predictions: Jesus predicts his death and the disciples respond without comprehension.
The Request of James and John (Mark 10:35-45)
James and John want to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his glory. The point of this episode is Jesus’ response that they are not to behave like the Gentiles, lording it over people, but “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (ESV).
At first glance it may seem that the Greek of verse 43 should be translated, “whoever would be great among you will be (εσται) your servant,” and similarly in verse 44, “whoever would be first among you will be (εσται) slave of all.” The problem is, this translation would make being a servant and slave of all into a punishment for one’s grandiose desires—hardly an encouragement to be a servant. The passage makes a lot more sense if εσται is taken as a future indicative functioning as an imperative, as in the fifth commandment, “you shall not murder” (ου φονευσεις in Mt 5:21). This is how the ESV arrives at “must be your servant” and “must be slave of all.” In this translation, service is not a punishment, but service is itself greatness. This turns the worldly idea of greatness on its head.
It is as if the world and the kingdom of God are parallel universes with different laws of physics. In the world, life is about getting. If I am great, that means that I am higher than you and I have more for myself. In the kingdom of God, on the other hand, life is about giving. If I am great, then I serve you. Jesus’ words are a severe indictment of the world.
There is a sense in which his words can be gospel as well, however. What if we imagine God operating according to the world’s principles? In that case, he would demand what is coming to him. He would seek glory for himself and demand that his lowly creatures give it to him. But in fact, God operates according to the kingdom’s principles. He is more concerned to give than to get. He calls sinners, not the righteous. He seeks to be the servant of all. That is why, in the final verse of the text, Jesus shows himself to be the model of the kind of life he is urging for his disciples.
The Ransom Saying (Mark 10:45)
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (διακονησαι), and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There is perhaps a bit of irony here since at the beginning of the gospel, the angels served (διηκονουν) Jesus (Mark 1:13), and Peter’s mother-in-law served (διηκονει) him as well (Mark 1:31). His main reason for coming, however, was to serve humanity by giving his life as a ransom.
This ransom saying is significant because it is one of the few places in the gospels where Jesus gives an explicit interpretation of the significance of his death. The saying raises a number of theological issues. Since a ransom (λυτρον) is a payment for the release of those in captivity, one may naturally ask to whom the ransom is being paid. There were some in the history of the church who said that the ransom was paid to the devil, but this view is unsatisfactory because it suggests that humanity’s ultimate problem is the devil. A more profound theology recognizes that humanity’s ultimate problem is with God himself. Our sin has separated us from God, and that is far more terrifying than captivity to the devil. Therefore, most theologians, especially since Anselm, have recognized that the ransom is paid to God.¹
Another point of theological significance in the ransom saying is the phrase “for many” (αντι πολλων). The preposition “for” (αντι) means “in the place of.” Thus, it indicates the substitutionary character of Christ’s death. He suffered in our place. The fact that his death is for “many” does not exclude anyone from this substitution. “Many” can be a way of referring to an unspecified multitude and so need not conflict with the statement that Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tm 2:6). In this sacrifice, Christ exhibits the truth of his own saying, “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
¹ The classic treatment of this question, which is more sympathetic to the idea that the price is paid to the devil than my remarks are, is found in Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement, translated by A.G. Herbert (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 47-55.