Failed graduates of the leadership school of Jesus?

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to reflect on “the request of James and John,”[1] two of Jesus’ closest associates, to appoint them to the two most important positions in His kingdom. The text is in Mark 10:35-45.

Whenever I read the passage, I think of why government ministers often ask their inner circle to travel separately to meetings they attend together. I was once told that they avoid taking with them people who are likely to nag them for rewards like contracts, titles, positions.

Passages like the present one fly in the face of those who say the gospels were fabricated to make the case for Christianity. Why would anyone fabricate a scripture which shows the apostles, the first graduates of the leadership school of Jesus, failing so miserably?

James and John weren’t just two of the twelve men Jesus chose, lived with, and trained over three years. They were the closest to Jesus, together with Peter, who would later play a key role in the young church.[2]

Peter was the one most hurt by the request they put to Jesus. Mark, author of the Gospel, was Peter’s co-worker.

After Peter died, Mark wrote, in the first century, in narrative form, the stories Peter had told about Jesus. Peter had told how Jesus responded to the request of James and John.

Jesus told them his Father would decide who would do what in his kingdom. Jesus didn’t commit on whether or not there’s a hierarchy. He told them instead to wake up and see that what lay ahead for him and for them was “a cup” and “a baptism.”

What did they understand by cup and baptism?

Cup and baptism symbolize pain and suffering. As I said in my sermon on Sunday, when we celebrate the Holy Communion service, we can drink from the cup of fellowship because Jesus drank from the cup of suffering.

In the Old Testament[3], the cup often symbolizes God’s wrath and judgment on human sin and rebellion.[4] Clearly, when Jesus cried out “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,”[5] the cup was the cup of God’s wrath.

How about baptism? Baptism is another symbol for the same thing. One commentator tells us “In popular Greek usage the vocabulary of baptism was used to speak of being overwhelmed by disaster or danger, and a similar metaphorical use of submersion is present in scripture.”[6]

There’s a massive difference between the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of James and John and everyone else who’s suffered for Jesus’ sake. Jesus’ suffering was a separation from God[7]. The suffering of others for Him is a result of acknowledging Him as Messiah and Lord.

Mark also tells us of the response of the other disciples. As expected, they were indignant[8]. They too wanted choice positions! Mark tells us:

42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This is a hard teaching.[9] It does not mean that there are no leaders in Christian communities. It means that the leaders behave differently from leaders in the world. It means the leaders put others’ first, not themselves – but the “others” are the community, not just individuals.

The account of “the request of James and John” is an account of a dark, depressing episode in the training of all the disciples. After nearly three years with the Master, they still didn’t get it. They still thought like the leaders of the world around them – exploiters whom they despised.

It was a very disappointing moment for Jesus, who was soon to be crucified. But is it fair to say they were failed graduates of the leadership school of Jesus? No! Because they only graduated after he was resurrected – and they did “receive” and endure the cup and the baptism.

How about leaders of today’s Christian communities?

[1] This is the titled assigned by the English Standard Version (ESV) translation.

[2] They were the ones Jesus took with him when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mk. 5:37); and when he went up the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-13).

[3] They were probably using the Greek translation of it, called the Septuagint.

[4] Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:17-23; Jer. 25:15-28; 49:12; 51:7; Lam. 4:21 f.; Ezek. 23:31-34; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2.

[5] Mt. 26:39.

[6] William L Lane, NICNT, The Gospel of Mark.

[7] The agony captured in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell.”

[8] Verse 41.

[9] We mustn’t miss the fact that here, “rulers of the Gentiles” is politically loaded. It’s like a criticism of heavy-handed Ministers, Mayors, and heads of public agencies.

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