For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Here we have one of the central verses in all of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’s death is a “ransom”, a payment of the price the “many” are unable to pay themselves. Jesus sells himself into slavery in order to liberate his brothers and sisters from bondage. For “Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on forever and never see the grave.” On our behalf he fulfills the image of the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah: “…it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured…the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.” As we heard in the first reading, “it was the Lord’s will to crush him with pain…” and “My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear.”
But the context in which this verse occurs does not directly concern the atoning death of Jesus but his teaching on discipleship: “…whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all,” says Jesus to the Twelve.
Seen in the broader context of the passage immediately preceding this one, Mark alerts us to the theme of discipleship by telling us that Jesus, the Twelve, and his other followers are “on the way, going up to Jerusalem,” with Jesus going on ahead of them. This image calls to mind the many spiritual pilgrimages the people make to Jerusalem, and therefore elicits an atmosphere of festal celebration, as we know from praying the Psalms of Ascent: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, “Let us go up to the house of the Lord…There the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord.” It is also evocative of Israel’s journey through the wilderness with the Lord God going before them in a pillar of fire. Furthermore, it points to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah alluded to in the opening verses of Mark: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way; ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
And if we look a few verses ahead in this same chapter 40 of Isaiah we find: “Get you up to the high mountain, O herald of good tidings to Zion; / lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings to Jerusalem; / lift it up, fear not; / say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” / Behold, the Lord God comes with might, who rules by his strong arm…” Here the Lord appears as the mighty, strong-armed Divine Warrior engaged in a cosmic battle against the forces of evil who has now begun his triumphant march up to Jerusalem to liberate her from her enemies and establish his kingship on Zion, his holy mountain. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy,” says Isaiah. For “her guilt is expiated…she has received from the hand of her Lord double for all her sins.”
Mark says that the Twelve and the others who followed Jesus were amazed and afraid. No doubt they were responding to the figure of Jesus himself, whose whole manner and person must have radiated from within a powerful and compelling combination of purpose, authority, and humility, united in a dynamic forward-moving energy unobstructed by sin, totally surrendered as he was to the will of his Father, and aware that the culmination of his mission was drawing near. He is like the pillar of fire leading the Israelites of old. Amazement and fear are fitting responses for those who have caught a glimpse of the divine glory present yet hidden in the humanity of the Son of Man. The whole group must have been caught up into this powerful movement, with its multi-layered associations with the history, hopes, and dreams of God’s holy people.
At this point, Jesus takes the Twelve aside and makes it absolutely clear that the way of God as liberating warrior is one with the way of the Suffering Servant. He will achieve his victory by his suffering and death as obedient Servant, as the One who has emptied himself and taken on the form of a slave. "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise."
It is at this point in the text that James and John come forward with their request. Placed here as it is by Mark, it is hard to see how they could have made a more blind request at a more inappropriate moment. They seem in another world altogether; their minds apparently so totally occupied elsewhere with their own dreams and imaginings that nothing else can penetrate. On the other hand, we all know the temptation of wishing to ride along on the wave of God’s victorious triumph over sin and death while overlooking the way of the Cross even when it is staring us in the face.
Nevertheless, it seems to me too one-sided to interpret the request of James and John exclusively as a desire for power and prestige. I see no reason why more purely religious motives can’t be present here at the same time: the enthusiasm and zeal for excellence of young, idealistic, but untried disciples of weak understanding, who have caught a glimpse of the divine glory in the face of Jesus, who hope to be intimately united with him and share as deeply as possible in the mysteries of his life, who, in short, genuinely want to be holy.
The tack they take though shows that they need much conversion. They try to get Jesus to agree to their request before they say what it is. Jesus does not respond with a reproach, however, but listens, and chooses to see this instead as an opening and therefore an opportunity. First, he warns them that they do not know what they are asking, and then sets up a condition and a challenge. In this way, he appeals to their ambition, high ideals, and goodwill in order to redirect it and draw something great out of them.
“Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?", he asks. “We can,” they respond immediately and without hesitation. “We can”, I submit, is the only real response that a disciple can give, unless we want to turn away like the rich man; in that, we must always respond to God from the conviction that with God anything is possible, and not in false humility from the sense of our limited capacity and human frailty. The Lord has turned the petition into a task, and with the task always comes the grace to carry it out. We must never come to the Lord having placed conditions on our self-gift. Although their understanding needs to be stretched and their motives purified, the basic desire for excellence and greatness, to reach beyond simple fulfillment of the commandment, is a necessary ingredient for the saint and the martyr, as it is for any lover. With their unhesitating response, James and John dispose themselves to be put to use by the Lord as the Lord needs them and sees fit. "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…” With him going before them showing the way, they will walk the path of the suffering servant. They will share in his redemptive suffering.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read that King Herod had James killed by the sword; probably between 42 and 44 AD. John on the other hand, according to St. Irenaeus, lived to a ripe old age, dying under the emperor Trajan, who reigned from 98-117 AD.
In John, we have an archetypal example of discipleship to look to as someone who is not a martyr but nevertheless drinks from the same cup of Jesus as the martyrs. Without in the least raising himself above the other disciples and evangelists, John will be the one whom Jesus loved, who sat at his side at the Last Supper and reclined his head on Jesus’ chest. He is the only one of the Twelve to be present under the Cross, alongside the Lord’s mother; he is the one of whom Jesus says to Peter after the Resurrection, “"What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? He is the one “caught up in spirit on the Lord’s Day on Patmos, who saw one like a son of man,” who “touched him with his right hand” and communicated to him for all the churches the vision of the Apocalypse. Not least, he is the one of the evangelists who can’t say enough what the others imply, that “God is love.”
All of this did not just happen, but I believe is the fruit and expression of a soul that has consistently handed itself over in unconditional love for the Lord and whom the Lord himself has freely chosen and regarded as fit to taste the full mystery of his suffering. I believe we get a glimpse of this at the Cross.
The Lord alone is capable of paying the ransom to free us from sin and death. The Lord must take the Cross on himself alone. John’s service to Jesus, to God, and to the Church is this acceptance of letting himself be drawn into the mystery of the Lord’s Cross and to taste the mystery of his suffering for all of us, of his loneliness and of his forsakenness. From the Cross, the Lord and John are present to one another and love one another as before, but they are unable to reach one another, unable to console one another. Present to one another, each must leave the other to bear his suffering alone. In his intimate love for the Lord and his experience of the separation of the Cross, John teaches us what he has learned, that these poles are inseparable and irreducible: glory and redemptive suffering. From this experience, I believe, flows everything that we have come to know as the Johannine heritage.
Let us drink deeply from this heritage and be drawn like James and John along the path of obedient service, that, in the words of St. Benedict, “having given up our own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience we may do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord,” who has given his life as a ransom for many.