Word for the day Christian Education Forum
St James the Apostle day / Discipleship: A Paradoxical Teaching of GreatnessMark 10: 35-45
Who is the greatest? This question resonates around this passage. The interpretation of greatness is different for Christ and His disciples. Disciples (James and John) live in a world that perceives greatness as equivalent to power which is one of the reasons why Alexander the great is called Alexander “the great.” Whoever possesses more power possesses greater greatness. According to historians, the Greco-Roman world’s population consists of 90-95% poor and 5-10% wealthy. Those who had wealth also had the power to rule. Therefore, the poor yearns to become wealthy and powerful. It is no wonder when James and John asked to be seated along with Jesus on the throne (10:37) for they are part of this socio-political scenario, which eventually influenced them to seek power.
In Matthew 20:20-28 Zebedee's sons’ mother asks the same, Biblical scholars argues that, since Mark is one of the reference text for Matthew, Matthew may have an obligation to save the image of the disciples, Matthew place their mother instead of them. But in Mark, it reveals the true intentions of these disciples without any cover displaying the author’s authenticity.
We need to consider the fact that disciples asked Jesus about the throne after they heard the third time that Jesus foretells his death and resurrection (10:32-34), in this context they are acting insensitive and thirst for power.
Jesus responded, “You don’t know what you are asking, Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? The words ‘cup’ and ‘baptism.’ Cup signifies suffering and baptism signifies death on the cross. James and John confidently reply, “We are able.” Jesus agrees with them which states that they will participate in his suffering as well as death by foreseeing the future. Nonetheless, inheriting the right and left sides of the throne is given to those who are worthy. Jesus teaches them to be diligent in their work which eventually leads to the place according to their worth.
Their ambition has offended the fellow disciples and knowing this Jesus called them and said about the nature of Lordship practiced by the rulers of the land who are tyrants. The lordship defined by the world makes one grow smaller and here Jesus teaches them another lordship that helps them grow stronger, in other words, one can become great by becoming a servant. It is possible for Jesus because He was the Lord of all and yet choose to become the suffering servant. A Lord who is also a servant is a paradox. Jesus applies the same paradox to discipleship. Servant and slave are two imageries used by Jesus to depict greatness. Jesus defines greatness not by domination but by servant attitude (Greek term Diakonos- to minister) and slave attitude (Greek term Doulos meaning slave; to see other as greater than self). For His greatness lies in humility and servanthood.
In this meaning, Paul refers to himself as a servant in 2 Cor 4:5 “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” and as a slave in Rom 1:1 “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.”
Afterward, Jesus teaches one of the prominent verses used to denote the greatness of ministry. Jesus is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a “Man for Others”. In Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 Jesus declares that power and authority or greatness are achieved first by being a servant to others. The word ransom in Greek is “lytron” which means it is the price paid to redeem someone or something, to cancel a debt or obligation, or to secure an exemption for punishment. In the OT, the term can refer to the redemption of a slave (Lev 19:20) or animal (Lev 27: 27). In the first-century Greek world, the term was commonly used to release captives or prisoners. In the NT, the term is used for Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45). Therefore, the terminology “ransom” of slaves provides the background for this passage.
“Ransom,” although drawn from the background of purchasing the freedom of a slave or captive (i.e., to free by payment), is here in a metaphorical sense for a setting free from sin and its penalty at the cost of the sacrifice of Jesus. This is the service performed by the suffering servant of Isa 53. Jesus’ life was a ransom because He was without sin and His life did not ransom only certain groups of people or communities but He ransomed many. Many means diverse groups, race, sex, class, etc. According to the Bible, death is the result of sin (Rome 6:23). In place of humans for their sins, Jesus gave himself as ransom and brought back humans from death to life.
Jesus is our model, the model that taught James and John about greatness, and through the conversation with his disciples, Jesus teaches us to be ministers of true greatness in the world that craves power and popularity. We are called to be witnesses to Christ, therefore let us transform ourselves to be known as the woman or man for others like Christ was a man for others.
O Lord Our God, You have taught us about the true greatness that you envisage. Lord, make us as the servants and slaves of your ministry to become the beacon of humility and meekness. Empower us to become true witnesses through a sacrifial living. In Jesus’ name we pray…Amen
Dan Thomas George
Mar Thoma Theological Seminary,