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Reflections on the Gospel: October 21, 2012

Mark 10:35-45

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not 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?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What I am Learning:

There are times when one word, or one phrase can completely overcome the power of a gospel text. The last phrase of this text is one such phrase for many people.

We hear the words, "and to give his life as a ransom for many" and our brains almost forget the meaning of the rest. We hear the word "ransom" and we are brought to mind what has been called "Anslemian atonement theory." It goes like this:

  1. God made human beings
  2. Humans owe God complete obedience
  3. Humans have been disobedient
  4. No matter how good we promise to be we can't get extra credit in obedience and so we are in debt
  5. God can't just forgive the debt and be God, since the central characteristic of God  is God being obeyed
  6. God sent Jesus to earth and since he was obedient he has no debt to God
  7. Jesus death on the cross is a sacrifice in payment for our debt
  8. Because God has received payment, God can now forgive us
  9. We can get in on the deal when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and then we can go to heaven when we die

The "ransom" that Jesus paid was a payment to God - to get us out of hock to God.

There are many problems with this 11th century theology. Here are a few:

  1. By the first century, the word "ransom" had moved from the specific context of hostage negotiations to mean in general "rescue" from a difficult situation.
  2. The Jewish people, unlike their neighbors, did not consider sacrifice as something that God needed or that would change God. Sacrifice was understood to be a sacramental act that changed the person and/or the community doing it. Anslem did not know this, and based his theory of atonement on a false understanding of Hebrew sacrifice.
  3. This theory makes God look terrible:  a) There are rules that even God must obey - namely being obeyed;  b) God needs violence upon Jesus to be able to forgive
  4. This theory makes all of this about us as individuals - the whole of the Bible is about me and my personal salvation.

The whole last section of Mark has been about the human need for status, what first century people called honor. We see the disciples reject Jesus' notion of messiahship because it would not lead to status, we see them reject children as having low status, we see them reject others in ministry because they would not add to their own status, and now the disciples are continuing to jocky for status when Jesus begins his reign in Jerusalem.

Jesus rejects status competition in this passage as the way of the Roman empire - "their Big Ones dominate the little ones." As such this part of Mark represents a thoroughgoing critique of how this Roman way had infected the Jewish people, and even his disciples.  Jesus seeks to rescue us from this terrible situation by proposing a new way to live:  it shall not be so among you.

He is trying to teach his disciples that their status with God is so assured, that they don't need to fight for status with each other or with outsiders.

Jesus came to join with the little ones and teach them how to live differently. Not teach them how to become Big Ones dominating others, but to recognize that they are Beloved Ones who need no other affirmation or status and so we can join with Jesus in serving one another instead of fighting for the top of the pile. That status is an illusion that captivates our minds.

Imposing Anslemian theology on top of this text robs it of its power and distracts us from a more difficult interpretation:

  • that we continue to strive to be Big Ones more than relaxing into our status as Beloved Ones
  • that we continue to live in fear and not in love
  • that power and fear rule us in every part of our lives

Jesus seeks to free us for an life of authentic service to our neighbor. We do need him to rescue us from the slavery of fear and dominating power.He does this by showing that the true nature of God is not the need to be obeyed, but is God's willingness to embrace life as vulnerable little one thus robbing the illusion of its hold on us.