Year B: Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Ambition of James and John

Mark 10: 35-45

 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” He replied, “What do you wish [me] to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” 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 or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What roles do self-importance, power and prestige play in your life?
  2. How do you avoid compartmentalizing what Jesus is teaching in this passage with the relationship-realities you face at work, and in life?
  3. In what areas of your life are you the servant of others? Explain where this happens for you.
  4. Jesus is saying the pattern of his life will be the pattern of our lives as well. Where have you experienced suffering and self-denial that led to letting go and transformation in your life?
  5. Do you have authority over anyone? How do you wield that authority? How would Christ have you wield that authority?

Biblical Context

Mark 10: 35-45
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Today’s Gospel begins immediately after Jesus told the disciples for the third time that he was going to suffer and die and that all of it was happening under God’s providence. Just as his final passion prediction (Mark 10:32-34) was the most detailed, so Mark makes this story of the disciples’ incomprehension the most egregious.

Jesus had ended his teaching about riches and poverty with the pronouncement: “But many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first.” (Mark 10:31). That was the entrée to his declaration about the immanence of his suffering. For some mindboggling reason, James and John decided that this was the right time to jockey for position in what they thought of as his coming glory. Less subtle than the enemies who used to try to trap Jesus, these two sounded like a couple of kids playing “Simon says” as they bid Jesus, “Tell us you’ll do anything we ask!” Jesus made them spell out exactly what it was that they hoped for. When they came clean about their shameless ambition, he told them that they had missed the point of everything he had been saying and that they surely had no clue about what they were asking him to do. He then spoke of the suffering he had been foretelling as a cup that he would drink and a baptism he would go through.

Responding as if he were talking about having a pool party, the two claimed they were ready to join him in the baptism and would be happy to share his cup. In reply, Jesus drove his point home by telling them that he had no say in the matter. If they stayed with him, they would share his fate, but glory was not his to hand out.

Ched Myers, Scripture scholar and author of Say This to The Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, describes Mark 8:22-11 as the “discipleship catechism.” He suggests that this interchange completes Jesus’ teaching about his alternative source and expression of power. Describing himself as “the Human One” or Son of Man, Jesus explains that the only way he can ransom the people is by being their servant, not their ruler. Little could his disciples imagine who would ultimately be on his right and left as he completed the baptism of the cross!

This week’s readings combine to ask us where we recognize images of God. Isaiah presents the suffering servant as the most iconoclastic image imaginable and a counterweight to the idolatry of inventing God in the image of our ambitions. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, the great high priest, passed to the highest position through his suffering and death and he is therefore able to understand our temptations and fears as he offers us the grace to deal with them. The Gospel offers James and John as mirrors of our own ambitions contrasted with Jesus’ description of himself as the servant-representative of the God who created for love, not glory. In the end, our ambition to achieve status or to serve will be the truest reflection of our image of God.

Putting Others First

John Shea

Along with Peter, James and John belong to the inner circle. Perhaps it was that distinction that emboldened them to request a cart blanche. They want to reverse the order Jesus had previously insisted on (Mark8:33). They want Jesus to do their will rather than they doing Jesus’ will. But they prefaced this request calling Jesus a teacher. And the teacher is always intent on uncovering the hearts of the disciples. Nothing uncovers the heart like voicing desire. The first desire made it clear that they are fixated on themselves and in hot pursuit of something else. So, without answering their question, Jesus inquires about what they want. Their question has been answered with a question. The teacher has turned the tables.

They want to flank Jesus in glory. Was the image of the transfiguration with Elijah and Moses on either side of Jesus their model? (Mark 9:4). What is in their hearts are power and prestige, and Jesus is the star to which they have hitched this aspiration. As soon as Jesus hears what they want, he knows they do not know. He is the wrong star for glory hounds.

What Jesus knows is a process: a cup of sorrow that becomes a cup of salvation, a baptism that is both death and resurrection. This definitely refers to Jesus’ upcoming passion and resurrection. But it also means the whole way of life he advocates: denying yourself, taking up the cross, and losing your life for the sake of the Gospel and in service of others (Mark 8:34-35). Death and resurrection come as a package. Also, the attitude should not be bearing with bad times in order to get to good times. Dying and rising are two sides of the one experience of freedom and life.

Spiritual and social climbers always upset other spiritual and social climbers. The drive to be first makes others feel last and conflict erupts. We become angry when our self-will is compromised by the self-will of others. The grab for glory by two ignites the grab for glory in the other ten.

This gives Jesus an opportunity to show another way. In competitive rankings, someone always is higher than someone else. This higher translates into oppression. Those on top push around those beneath them. Importance and power take on a sinister cast. The greater ones experience their superiority when they constrain others against their will. Their estimation of themselves rises to the extent that they can keep someone else lower. This is the way of the larger world, but it is not the way of the new humanity that Jesus is bringing to birth. Disciples experience greatness when they heal, exorcise, and teach—and through these activities free others from what imprisons and debases them (see Luke 10:17-20). This service unites them with the Holy Spirit, and they bring others into the kingdom. This is the way of the Son of Man, the new humanity. This other-centered way of life buys back people from captivity.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.