My Dear People,
James and John, two of Jesus’ earliest and closest disciples, could hardly have chosen a more tactless moment for their request. Perhaps they were dreaming so much about their future prominence that they were completely oblivious to his words about imminent suffering and death. Their approach is designed to get Jesus to agree to their request before they say what it is. The “Sons of thunder” (3:17) may be counting on their special status among the Twelve to expect such an open-ended grant. Jesus does not accept this tactic, but asks what they have in mind. The two brothers are seeking to secure for themselves the top posts in the Messiah’s future government. To sit at a ruler’s right or left hand was a sign of power and prestige (1 Kings 2:19; 22:19; Ps. 110:1). Although Jesus had spoken earlier of his coming “in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” Mark 8:38), James and John probably still had only a foggy idea of what his “glory” meant. What they do know is that they want first rights to a share in that glory before the others get in on it.
Jesus does not reproach them for their boldness. Instead, he lays out what appears to be a condition. In the Old Testament, a cup is a metaphor for what God has in store for someone, whether a cup of blessing (Ps. 16:5; 23:5) or, more frequently, the cup of his wrath (Ps. 75:9; Isa. 51:17-22; Jer. 49:12). Jesus has the latter in mind, since “drinking the cup” symbolizes his accepting the full brunt of God’s judgment on him (Mark 14:36). He is asking whether the disciples are willing to be united with him in his redemptive suffering. Yet the other meaning is also in the background, since through the eucharistic cup of his blood (Mark 14:23-24), his passion becomes the source of salvation to all who receive it.
The idea of baptism (immersed in water) as a metaphor for the passion occurs in a different context in Luke 12:50, where Jesus cries out, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” Immersion in water is a biblical image for overwhelming calamity (Ps. 42:8; 88:17-18; Isa 43:2). Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan was a prefigurement of his death, and the early Church understood Christian baptism as a union with Christ in his death by which believers die to their old self and begin a new life in him. To share in Christ’s suffering was considered a privilege and joy (Matt 5:11-12; Acts 5:41; Co. 1:24).
Jesus’ reply thus alludes to the two foundational sacraments of the new covenant—baptism and the Eucharist—pointing toward the way in which all his followers can be made worthy to share in his future glory.
The two brothers reply eagerly, and perhaps glibly, We can. They do not yet realize what they are asserting. Only on Golgotha will the deep irony of their request become clear: those at the right and the left hand of the Messiah-King are the two thieves crucified with him (15:27). Yet Jesus takes their willingness seriously: they will indeed drink his cup and be plunged into his baptism. For James, this promise will be fulfilled literally in his martyrdom not many years later (Acts 12:2). Suffering is the unavoidable doorway to glory, for Jesus’ disciples as for himself. Yet to assign the seating at his right or left in glory is the Father’s prerogative alone.
Understandably, the other ten disciples are indignant, perhaps because they too want to be VIPs in the kingdom and are annoyed that others have upstaged them. Jesus patiently takes the occasion for another lesson in discipleship, explaining in different terms what he has said before (9:35; 10:15). In the ancient world, as today, authority is naturally assumed to entail perks and benefits for those who wield it, and the powerful often enjoy throwing their weight around. But Jesus’ command is stark: It shall not be so among you. His disciples are to display a radical and countercultural attitude toward leadership. There is no place for self-promotion, rivalry, or domineering conduct among them. Jesus does not deny that there will be offices of authority in the community he is establishing. Nor does he reject that the aspiration to greatness lies deep in the human heart. Rather, he reveals that the only way to greatness, paradoxically, is by imitating him in his humble, self-emptying love. The whole mentality on which Church leadership is exercised must be that of service, acting entirely in the benefit of others, putting oneself at their disposal, caring for their humblest needs. A slave can be called on to perform the most menial tasks, such as washing feet or waiting at table. To be a “slave of all” is an incredibly tall order. St. Paul often characterizes his own apostleship as being a slave of those to whom he ministered (1 Cor 9:19).
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente