Location, Location, Location
The old realtor's saw about the three most important factors in real estate also applies to the understanding this week's Gospel reading. An interpreter would be wise to pay attention to the pericope's location, location, location. The word "pericope" literally means "a cutting out" -- as in, "taken out of context." Re-placing the pericope into its literary context sheds a bit of light on this story.
Location (Part 1)
First, note that this reading -- in which James and John put their feet in their mouths by asking a stupid question (more on that below) -- occurs immediately after the third of Jesus' so-called passion predictions.
These announcements are often called "passion prediction." But that title may not be very helpful. The titles that an interpreter affixes to any given passage can powerfully influence the meaning that the interpreter makes out of that passage. If we call these passages "predictions," how does it shape our reading of these passages?
For many readers, the first question that they will ask about a "prediction" is whether or not it will (or did) come true. Is that the most interesting or fruitful question that an interpreter might ask? What if we renamed these so-called predictions and titled them as "Interpretations of Messianic Identity" or "Announcements of Messianic Mission"? Might these titles foster more interesting conversations about the meaning of these passages?
For the sake argument, and for the duration of this essay, let's rename these passages "Interpretations of the Messiah's Servant Mission."
Location (Part 2)
Second, note that after the other two Interpretations of the Messiah's Servant Mission, the disciples also put their feet in their mouths. After the first Interpretation of the Messiah's Servant Mission (8:31-32), which is the only time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus teaches something "openly," Peter rebukes Jesus and then in turn is rebuked by Jesus. After the second Interpretation of Messianic Identity (9:30-32), the disciples ask Jesus which one of them is the greatest, to which Jesus responds by saying "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
Location (Part 3)
Third, note that immediately before the first Interpretation of the Messiah's Servant Mission, Jesus healed a blind man -- but that the healing didn't take right away (8:22-26). That is the only miracle of Jesus' that didn't turn out right the first time. And notice that immediately after this week's passage, Jesus also heals a blind man (10:46-52).
That is to say, the three Interpretations of the Messiah's Servant Mission are framed by the two stories about giving sight to the sightless. A chart might help:
First Interpretation of the Messiah's Servant Mission
Second Interpretation of the Messiah's Servant Mission
Third Interpretation of the Messiah's Servant Mission
I Once Was Blind, But Now I See. . . . In Part
The two blind-men-who-gain-sight stories bracket the central chapters of the Gospel. And in those same chapters, the disciples three times show that they have ears, but do not hear what Jesus is really saying. Taken together, this chunk of Mark shows a picture of only partial disclosure.
In the central chapters (8-10) of the Gospel of Mark, the evangelist is painting a picture of the disciples as only partially understanding exactly who it is they are following. Peter is the first one to put a name on the matter -- Jesus is the Messiah of God. Peter knows this. But Peter doesn't know what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. The Disciples are the first followers of Jesus. They see him for who he is -- the Christ. But they don't see what it means for him to be the Christ. James and John get that Jesus is the real deal. But they do not understand the nature of the deal.
Most American students are convinced by their grade school teachers that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Well, James and John put the lie to that fairy tale. They ask a really bad question. Having just been told by Jesus that his messianic identity is about suffering, death, and resurrection, they ask if they can sit on his right and left side "in your glory."
Wow. Talk about not getting it.
Perhaps James and John had a banquet in mind, sitting on the right and left of Jesus at the banquet celebrating his rise to power. The fact that Jesus responds with a reference to drinking the cup that he is to drink points in this direction; if so, there is painful irony later in the story, as Jesus on the cross is to offered "a sponge with sour wine" to drink (15:36). Similarly, James and John may have had a coronation or throne-room scene in mind with their request to sit on his right and left. Again, if so, there is irony later in the story as two bandits are crucified with Jesus, "one on his right and one on his left" (15:27).
What is clear to the reader of this story -- but is not clear to the disciples, who are characters in Mark's story -- is that the disciples think they know who Jesus is and why he has come. But they really don't get it. Not fully.
And because of that, they do not know what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus is, as he tells James and John after their request, a servant Messiah. And to follow a servant Messiah means, well, to be a servant: "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:44-45).
Taken in the context of the Gospel of Mark as a whole, there is only one event that will finally pull the curtain all of the way back so that Jesus' followers will finally understand that he is a servant king -- the kind of king that God had always wanted Israel's kings to be. That event is the resurrection. But even then -- and this is a warning for all of us who live on this side of the resurrection -- we see, as St Paul says, only in part, as in a mirror dimly.