A Troubling Request

Twenty-first after Pentecost: Mark 10:35-45.
By Hugh Farquhar 

From time immemorial, humans have had difficulty with authority. People who misuse authority are people who have allowed some power they have inherited or achieved to go to their heads.

Many of us like to be in charge. Some of us like bossing others around; it makes us feel important. In our culture, a prevailing concept of success involves the number of people who work for you, and we stress the phrase “for you.”

We tend to think hierarchically in almost every sphere of living. We draw diagrams from the top-down, indicating who is above and who is below, and what is often called lines of accountability.

Some degree of authority is, of course, necessary. There are situations where decisions need to be made; the buck has got to stop somewhere. The problem arises when authority is seen as an opportunity to promote oneself and one’s interests only.

People in Jesus’ day lived in a context that was severely stratified. In the Roman Army, a constant presence in Palestine, officers were up, soldiers in the middle, civilians, down! In the economic world, the rich were up, the middle class. middle, and the poor, down! As regards religion, the priests were up, officials middle, laity down! In the social plain, men were up, women and children were down! And so it went, and authority, for the most part, meant one person or group of people lording it over (to use Jesus’ phrase) those who were in any sense under them.

It’s with this mindset that James and John came forward to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus replied, “What is it you want me to do for you?” They answered, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.”

They just didn’t get it! Despite Jesus’ teachings to the contrary, they still thought that he was going to end up being the King of some sort of Kingdom. They pictured themselves elevated right there beside him, wielding power, and authority. They would be up; the other disciples and everyone else would be down!

I don’t think Jesus quite knew how to handle a question that was so off the mark concerning what he was about. In a moment that is as poignant as any in the whole New Testament he said to them, “You don’t know what you’re asking . . . are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” “We are able,” they replied confidently. “Whatever it takes!”

Mark reports that “when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” Of course, that’s what self-promotion always does. It creates envy and resentment, and fractures and divides community. It’s an attitude that ticks people off. “Who do they think they are?” the disciples were saying amongst themselves. Any time anyone wants to be up so that they can put others down, there’s bound to be trouble.

This goes against Jesus’ dream for human association and community. “So shall it not be among you,” he said. He called his disciples to model a different handling of power and a different approach to authority. Not up and down, but side by side. Not hierarchy, but partnership. Not self-promotion, but service, a willingness to put oneself out for another’s welfare. Jesus confronted the love of power with the power of love.


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