We come to the end of Jesus’ teaching during the journey to Jerusalem. Once again, the disciples, this time James and John, misunderstand what the kingdom is all about.
They ask Jesus for places of honour, only to be told that, although they may share in Jesus’ cup, their request for seats is not in Jesus’ gift to grant. The indignant reaction of the other ten provides another opportunity for Jesus to spell out clearly that the kingdom of God is not in any way like human societies and their systems of privilege: rather, it is one of service, and the leader is to be more like a slave than a king or autocratic ruler. It is not giving the disciples – or anyone else, for that matter – permission to “lord it over” others.
Jesus presents the model of leadership as that of the Son of Man: this is a title often associated with the passion. The expression “a ransom for many” recalls the “Suffering Servant” figure in Isaiah and presents Jesus’ ultimate self-giving in terms of redeeming others, giving a deeper meaning to the forthcoming events in Jerusalem
The prophets of Israel were deeply suspicious of organised religion. Their problem with it was not that it was not working properly: for them, it was rather that it was working only too well. Engaging in public worship could give people the sense that they had fulfilled their religious duties and that what happened in the Temple had little or nothing to do with the way in which they conducted their social or business affairs. Ritual could function as a placebo, making people feel good about themselves while their attitudes and behaviour were violently clashing with the values put forward by their religion. By Jesus’ time, the Jerusalem Temple priests had become chiefly political figures, concerned with their power and position.
The Church exists within historical settings and develops its way of life within different societies throughout the world. We can see from the history of Europe how the Church became a very powerful force: political power and influence can be very seductive, tempting leaders (at every level) towards the mistaken notion of leadership shown by James and John. Jesus’ answer to their request for seats of honour was the offer of the cup of suffering: the individuals who were actually given places on Jesus’ right and left hand were the two thieves who were crucified with him. We must indeed be careful about what we wish for.
It is easy to think that Jesus’ teaching applies to bishops, priests and the like, but even at local level, among parishioners, there is a fine line between service and control.Individuals can carve out little kingdoms for themselves, imagining that their motives are pure and selfless, but this can, in fact, be a subtle way of satisfying a desire for power and position over others. The teachings of Jesus apply to all of us, irrespective of our particular calling.
- The cup” which Jesus mentions is the metaphorical cup of suffering, which will feature in the scene in Gethsemane.
- Mark adds the phrase “and to give his life as a ransom for many” to this third prediction of the passion.
- This explains Jesus’ death in the context of the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah.
Pick up or look at a cup: think about Jesus’ teaching that Christian community is all about service, not power or control.