Yesterday, on Sunday, October 21, 2018, I preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon in New York. The Gospel text for the day was Mark 10:35-45.
I was engaged in the practice of “centering prayer” early yesterday morning and as my time came to its end, my message emerged: speaking to Iesu, I said,
“I belong only to you, for you have paid the price to release me from slavery with your total self-giving (pre-conditioned by your own total freedom, which you took to yourself).
“If I belong only to you, no one else can own me, no one else can possess me, no one else can have a right over me.
“When I see that I belong only to you, I also see — in the same perception — that this means I belong to everyone, without any distinction, and I am therefore free to serve others without any discrimination with my love.”
This is an interior state we should be in. It should be how we are with others, even if the world around us continues its way. But among us — exteriorly, so to speak — there should be only this way of being.
It’s a message of radical nonviolent anarchism as it has long been understood in the Christian tradition. I attempted, as a privileged white woman, with an irony that does not escape me, to preach this Gospel to a predominantly black congregation.
If you are not interested in churchy things like sermons and biblical interpretation, you might want to stop reading now and do something more enjoyable.
I thought I might share with anyone who’s interested, how I reflected on this passage in the Gospel according to Mark.
First, let me contextualize a little how I approached the text. The text has been important to me for almost fifty years. This and other texts like it have shaped my life, my aspirations, my Franciscan/Clarissan calling, my politics, and my way of being in the world. It is an example of how Iesu, in the unique revelatory presentation of zemself to the world, renounced the entire principle of domination as a way of being. I saw the principle that is under condemnation here as being everywhere operative in the world around me: family, school, church, society, internationally, ecologically.
Instead of domination, where a person supposedly “belongs” to another and is therefore subject to him or her, we all belong to each other in mutual dependence and therefore serve one another, not in subjection, but freely out of love.
Like every other passage in the Bible, this passage has been distorted and exploited for the opposite ends to that for which it was intended. The passage is not about “servant ‘leadership,” which is a sophistry in which dominance is renamed service (my dominating you is for your good, it’s my way of serving you), nor is it suggesting that we should surrender our will to others to serve them by doing what they want: usually verses 43-44 are applied to the dominated side of the social equation, for example, wives, if they wish to be “great” in the kingdom of the patriarchal god, should be servants and slaves to their husbands, or children to their parents, or church members to their pastor, or citizens to their would-be fascist leader.
So explore with me for a moment the passage in question.
The passage is the core of a larger passage that includes 10:32-52. It is preceded by Iesu’s third announcement of his coming passion in Jerusalem and it is followed by the healing of a blind man.
The healing of the blind man ends a larger section of Mark’s gospel that begins with the healing of another blind man in 8:22-26. As the healing of Bartimaeus (in 10:46-52) is preceded by the last passion announcement, the disciples’ misunderstanding of Iesu and zeir whole approach to things, and Iesu’s clarification,
so, the healing of the man who at first could not see clearly (in 8:22-26) is followed by the first passion announcement, the disciples’ misunderstanding of Iesu and zeir whole approach to things, and Iesu’s clarification.
The material that falls between these two bookends is about who Iesu is and what is Iesu’s whole approach to things as ze and zeir disciples travel on “the way” to Jerusalem.
Mark’s design seems deliberate that this broader section begins and ends with the healing of a blind man.
Let’s say I lost you there; pardon me if I repeat myself. Basically, we have a section of Mark’s gospel that begins and ends with Iesu healing a blind man. If we peek just inside of these two “bookends,” on either side, we see exchanges that expose the disciples’ profound misunderstanding of Iesu and what Iesu is about. If this is by design, it would not be far-fetched to compare the disciples’ misunderstanding to blindness. We might even say that Mark wants us to conclude that they are afflicted with something like “spiritual blindness,” and that the healing of the blind men are enacted parables of the disciples’ inner condition. (Mind you, I’m not questioning the historicity of these healings.)
The three announcements of the passion, then, serve as a kind of punctuation of this section, each marking the beginning of a subsection. (Mark, again, seems to have been very intentional about how he designed this gospel.)
So, just taking this third subsection, 10:32-52, let’s notice a few more things. For one thing, it has a chiastic structure. You might imagine this like the layers of an onion. The outer layer has verses 32-34 on one side and verses 46-52 on the other side. The next layer has 35-37 on one side and 45 on the other. The next layer has 38-39 on one side and 41-44 on the other. And the center piece is verse 40.
So I find this interesting: in the outer two layers, in verses 32-37 and 45-52, you have the repetition of these words: “the way” (also translated “road” or “roadside”), “to follow,” “the Son of Man,” “to give” (it is also concealed in the phrase “to hand over”), “teacher” (one word is in Greek and the other in Hebrew), and the whole question, “What is it that you want me to do for you?” (There are other repetitions, but these here seem significant.) Interestingly, the word “to give” (διδωμι) is also in the center verse, verse 40.
These are each significant words or phrases when it comes to interpreting the passage. One thing to notice right off is the repetition of the words “the way” and “to follow.” Iesu is on “the way” and the disciples are “following” without fully comprehending. Bartimaeus is sitting by “the way” but when he receives his sight, he “follows Iesu on the way.”
Another thing is the repetition of the question. In the first instance, when the disciples answer Iesu’ question, Iesu says, “You do not know what you are asking.” They asked Iesu to give them whatever they would ask, and when they explained what it was, Iesu said, “That’s not for me to give.” In other words, “No, I’m not going to do that.” In the second instance, when Bartimaeus answer’s Iesu’s question by asks for his sight, Iesu said, “Go, your faith (emunah in Hebrew) has saved you,” and immediately his sight was restored.
Another is the repetition of the phrase “Son of Man” (an idiom that means “the Human Being” though connoting “the Coming One). The phrase refers to the apocalyptic figure in Daniel 7:13. Iesu tends to apply this expression to zemself with quite a bit of irony. “The Son of Man” is the passive subject of the passion in the first instance, and in the second instance the Son of Man actively gives zeir soul (zeir self) as the price to release “many” (an ambiguous community) from slavery.
The “third” layer, verses 38-39 and 41-44, exhibit some interesting parallelism. Verses 38-39 begins with Jesus saying, “You do not know,” and verses 41-44 begins with Jesus saying, “You know.” Then verses 38-39 has an (almost) identical couplet (the cup and the baptism) repeated before and after the central “we are able.” Verses 41-44 likewise has an almost identical couplet, “those who seem to rule” (the word “to rule” also means “to begin,” i.e., to be first) and “the great ones” in the first set, and “whoever wishes to become great” and “whoever wishes to be first” in the second set, repeating before and after the central “but it shall not be so among you.”
You do not know:
· drinking the cup
· being baptized
· “we are able”
· drinking the cup
· being baptized
· verse 40
· to be first
· to be great
· “it shall not be like this among you”
· to be great
· to be first
These things I’ve been explaining are structural and do not, on their own, interpret the passage, but they show us what is going on and how to outline the passage so the juicy stuff can come to the fore.
So let’s go. Verses 35-45.
Iesu calls the twelve over to him and tells them that they are going up to Jerusalem and ze is going to be given over to the authorities who, having stripped zem of zeir rights, will mock, spit upon, flog, and kill zem, and after three days zey will rise again. Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment (death by torture as a public exhibition) reserved for slaves and rebels. Iesu was entering into complete solidarity with both. Completely clueless, James and John respond by coming up to Iesu and saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask you.” In other words, we want you to be at our command.
Even though we all know the story of the passion, we still ask Iesu to be and to do whatever we want. Christians often seem to talk and pray this way. We want to be in control. We are not interested in anything that disturbs much less threatens our ego.
So Iesu asks them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they say to him, “Give us the privilege of sitting, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In Matthew 25:31, Iesu says, “When the ‘Son of Man’ comes in zeir glory, and all the angels with zem, then ze will sit on the throne of zeir glory.” The disciples are no doubt imagining the ‘Son of Man’ in Daniel 7:13 quite literally coming in glory and being given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve zem.” In other words, they are thinking that in the coming kingdom, the right and left hands of Iesu are positions of power and authority over others.
Iesu tells them that they have no idea what they are talking about. The “cup” (14:36) that Iesu speaks of refers to the suffering that ze was facing, and the baptism refers to the completion of zeir act of penitence begun at the Jordan, both referring to zeir self-giving (offering up) and being given-over. If we reflect on what these mean, then it is easy to see how they both correspond to the doublet in verse 42 as their opposites; at the very least, they each shed light on what the other means. The disciples ignorantly say that they are able to do what Iesu is able to do. Iesu promises them that one day they shall (see 13:9), and indeed, tradition tells us that they were both martyrs.
“But,” Iesu tells them, ze can only give them zeir soul, zeir life. Who will sit at zeir right or left hand has already been assigned. The irony is that the disciples were thinking of having authority over others when they “reign” with Iesu, but the only time the right and left hand of Iesu are mentioned elsewhere in Mark’s gospel is when Iesu is “reigning” from the cross, in 15:27: “with zem they crucified two bandits, one on zeir right and one on zeir left.” So zeir answer to them was “No. I cannot give you that.”
When the ten saw the audacity of James and John they got indignant because they felt that James and John were asking to be placed above them, so that they would all have to be subject to James and John. In other words, they might not have had the audacity of James and John but they were angry because they thought the same way.
Iesu calls them all over to zem for some instruction. “You may have no idea what I am talking about when I talk about the way that I must go (and the way I want you to go), but you do know the way of the gentiles, the way of the world. Ironically, the nascent zealots who wanted so much to oust the gentiles, thought about power in the same way that the gentiles did. Perhaps they still thought that that was what Iesu was up to.
In the world, the world of Adam, the patriarchal world that Adam chose for us a long time ago (an estimated 10,400 years ago, depending on what parameters one has in mind), “those who seem to rule the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” This is the way of the world. Iesu is not only talking about the extreme forms of tyranny and slavery. Ze is talking about all forms of dominance, of which tyranny and slavery (and Mr. Trump’s vision for America) should only be obvious examples.
The assumption upon which what we are used to calling “civilization” is based is that everything exists in a binary relationship to everything else, and one element of each binary is always superior to the other element: male and female, parents and children, rulers and subjects, masters and slaves, bosses and workers, teachers and students, clergy and laity, pastors and church members. This way of seeing attempts to categorize everything within its binary relationships. I am talking about a reductive way of understanding hierarchies.
Those who put themselves above others lord it over others. A “lord”—and that is the word used here, κυριος—is a master, someone who owns slaves. A master thinks he owns the slave’s will. The master wants his slaves to have no will of their own; their will is owned by their master, and therefore they must do whatever their master bids them. To own something (in this sense) is to possess it; it is to have a right to do with the thing however you please and to have the right to keep others from using it even if you have no use for it. When someone puts himself above others, this is, by its very nature, an act that dehumanizes those who are beneath him. Instead of there being a “you” facing you in a relationship, the other has become an “it” to you, under your control, for you to use as you wish or to not use. But Iesu repudiates this: no one can be owned by another; no one can be another’s possession.
Likewise, Iesu condemns people who imagine that they are “great” aince they exercise authority over others. Again, the word authority (εξουσια) means jurisdiction. Iesu uses the composite word κατα-εξουσιαζω, which means, to exercise authority, that is, to exert your “right,” or your “liberty,” over other people. This also dehumanizes people. No one has a “right” over anyone else.
Iesu is unequivocal about this. “It shall not be this way among you!” Ze literally say that “it is not so among you.” The sense, however, is imperative. If you are with me, if you are my disciple, it is not this way with you. You shall not behave this way to anyone. Period.
Then Iesu proposes the only way that it can be in zeir company. I think ze is using irony and not simply reassigning the meanings of “great” and “first.” If you wish to be great, or to be the first, try this instead. When we put a church leader—for example, a bishop—in a position of authority above others and they work really hard for their people, that does not mean he is a “servant leader” or the people’s “slave.” He is still has authority over them, even if it is in their interest. In the church there can be no one above another, no one who is greater, no one who has a right over others or power over them.
The word for “servant” is διακονος, a deacon. The word does not mean a menial servant or a waiter. It means a go-between, someone who does something on behalf of another. The word “slave” means what we mean by the word.
But what Iesu does here is say that in zeir company, that is, if you are zeir disciple, when you have given yourself to Iesu to belong to zem alone (and through zem to the Divine alone), you can have no other master, and no one else who has a right over you. You belong exclusively to Iesu.
However—and here is the paradox on account of who Iesu is—when you “belong” to Iesu, Iesu does not own you; instead, you become a free person. You are, in fact, liberated to return to your original state (before patriarchy was imposed), the state in which you belong to everyone, indiscriminately, and to no one in particular. In pre-patriarchal times, we all belonged to each other, mutually interdependent on each other for our very survival and also for our flourishing. When we belong to everyone, we are also free to serve them without servitude. When we are the owners of our own will and respect that everyone else is the owner of their wills, we naturally serve them, not in servitude (another paradox), but in love.
No one has a right over you. You have the only right over yourself. In other words, you are free. But if you seek to dominate or control another, to be first over them or greater than them, then you do not understand the condition of your own freedom. You are not free. We are only free when we freely serve others in mutual interdependence. Because you all belong to Iesu, and therefore belong to each other, “among you” you all are served by each other and serve one another freely in love
The disciple of Iesu does not recognize the claims of those who call themselves great or who put themselves above others. The reality is that there is no one greater than you who has a right over you, no one above you who can possess you, no matter what they think or claim, or even what the law says.
Iesu concludes by saying, “for even the Son of Man is not above others to be served by them.” The Son of Man also belongs to everyone and everything, and because zeir freedom derives from love, ze chooses to use zeir freedom to serve (though without servitude). The Son of Man came to give zeir soul as the price (the λυτρον) to release many slaves. Iesu went to the cross because ze would not recognize that what Rome claimed for itself was real or true. Because Iesu was so completely free, ze was a threat to the powers that be, a threat they could not tolerate.
“To give zeir life a ransom for many.” People tend to interpret this as a reference to the late medieval theory of substitutionary atonement (updated from its original conception grounded in the idea of “honor” to make sense to capitalists). This is one of the texts they use to support this theory. However, a ransom is the price paid to release a slave. Iesu paid with zeir own life to release many slaves. The word “many” can mean “all” but strictly speaking it refers to a community, whether the community of Iesu’s qahal, or of Israel itself, or of humanity. The slavery to which this ransom refers is not the slavery of our sins, but our slavery to those who arrogate power to themselves (or to whom it is arrogated), who put themselves (or are put) above us, and to those who think they are (or are thought to be) greater than others.