This passage plays a key role in the Gospel according to Mark's understanding of why Jesus dies and what his death means.
It describes the Christian gospel and the community it creates as utterly different from the "business as usual" we encounter all around us. At the same time, Jesus' words in 10:45 are often misconstrued and made to support theological proposals that are foreign to Mark's Gospel. Preachers therefore find themselves given a choice opportunity to get to the heart of the matter of Jesus' death and what it means for our discipleship.
James and John (10:35-40)
In the preceding scene (10:32-34), Jesus gives his final and most detailed prediction of his trial, suffering, death, and resurrection (compare the less formal references to death yet to come in 14:8, 17-28). He is about to enter Jerusalem (11:1-11) and confront the temple-based aristocracy. James and John request privileged places of authority in seats at Jesus' right and left. In doing so, the sons of Zebedee appear to have missed everything Jesus has said and done since 8:27, except maybe for the transfiguration in 9:2-8. They recognize that glorification awaits Jesus. The authority he has exhibited in his ministry will lead to something big, perhaps to a royal rule, and they conspire to capitalize on that.
When Jesus softly chastises the two for their ignorance and speaks about "the cup" he must drink (see 14:36) and "the baptism" he must undergo, he reiterates that violence and death await him in Jerusalem. Such is his role, corresponding to the paradoxical nature of his kingship, according to which he will die as an utterly despised and powerless "king." Mark's Gospel emphasizes that such rejection and death are inevitable and required, because of who Jesus is, because of the boundary-breaking character of his ministry, and because those who wield power in the world will do all they can to protect themselves and their prerogatives from the implications of that ministry.
Tyrants, Servants, and Freedom (10:41-45)
Although James and John affirm their willingness to endure suffering with Jesus, he waits until later to explain that they will fail to do so in the immediate future (14:26-50). Instead, in 10:41-45, he addresses their desire for power and prestige. He comments on the nature of human power--the kind of power that will soon crush him in the political spectacle of his trial and execution--and on the meaning of his death. He puts his life and death, along with the lives and sufferings of his followers, in complete opposition to such expressions of power.1
James and John are not the only disciples enticed by visions of a triumphant reign, for the rest of the Twelve fume over the brothers' bid to outflank them in prominence. Jesus corrects their vision by holding up the conventions of gentile (Roman) sociopolitical authorities as negative examples. They regularly "overpower" and "tyrannize" others (10:42). They rely on coercion and control to maintain their dominance and prerogatives. Mark has already provided a stark example in the story of John the Baptizer's death (6:14-29), in which self-interest and self-protection trump justice to ensure John's demise. Jesus' trial in 14:53-15:15 will manifest a similar kind of strong-armed political theater.
In absolute contrast, greatness among Jesus' followers is measured by their ability to live as servants and slaves, even if that life means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield power. Jesus has spoken in similar terms in 9:33-37, where he compares himself to a child, an image of powerlessness and vulnerability. He will embody such subjection in his passion, when he affirms the promise of his glorification (14:62) but nevertheless forgoes the power to control his fate or to prevail over others.
Jesus' final line--"For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many"--connects to his preceding words about service and enslavement, indicating that his death will be exemplary for such a way of living. His death will exemplify the violence and resistance his teaching and ministry elicit from those who hold power over society, and it will exemplify a radical renunciation of authority and privilege, as these things are normally constructed (see 8:34-36). What makes the renunciation so radical is the identity of the one who does it: Jesus, God's own uniquely authorized agent.
At the same time, Jesus' mention of a "ransom" indicates that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr's tragic protest against an unjust system. The word in question (in Greek, lytron) indicates that his death does something; it secures a release. This verse often sparks lively debates, and it has a history of, in my opinion, being misunderstood by those who take the notion of a "ransom" to mean a specific type of payment. In those readings, Jesus' death is transactional, a payment made to satisfy the penalties accrued by human sin or to repay something owed to God.
However, the explicit context in which this statement appears is about power and servitude, not the problem of sin or the need to secure forgiveness. Furthermore, the Old Testament (Septuagint) usage of lytron and its cognates, while sometimes referring to a redemption or purchased freedom, just as frequently refers to God's acting to deliver people. A lytron is a liberation wrought by divine strength, not by payment (see examples of lytron cognates in Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 15:15; 2 Samuel 7:23; Psalm 69:18; Isaiah 43:14).
Jesus therefore declares (without stopping to clarify precisely how) that God, through Jesus' death, will free people from oppression and captivity to another power, restoring them to membership in the community that corresponds to God's reign.
All this provokes a few questions:
Sunday's Readings and Sermon
Some interpreters have insisted on reading Mark 10:45 alongside Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and thereby made the lytron of Mark 10:45 imply that Jesus bears humanity's sins on the cross as a kind of vicarious atonement, a payment for sin. There are multiple problems with importing such a theology into this verse. First, these Markan and Isaianic passages share hardly any language in common (for example, neither lytron nor the Greek words Jesus uses for "servant" and "slave" in Mark 10:43-44 appear in Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Nothing indicates that Mark writes (or Jesus speaks) with Isaiah 52-53 in view.
Second, the context of Mark 10:41-45 describes Jesus as a servant in an exemplary sense. That is, he instructs his disciples to follow suit. But nothing about Isaiah's description of the suffering one calls readers to follow his example. It can be easy to assume that that servant acts as he does so we do not have to do so. Mark presents Jesus' sufferings otherwise.
I dwell on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 because some lectionaries assign a portion of it as the so-called "complementary" first reading for this Sunday. This reflects those lectionaries' clear preference for a certain, yet deeply problematic interpretation of Mark 10:45. Probably a single sermon is not the place for preachers to parse the differences between Mark's notion of Jesus as lytron and Isaiah's notion of the servant.
Moreover, since the idea of a vicarious atonement--Jesus as a sinless sacrifice carrying the full burden of human sin to satisfy God or cosmic justice--is so deeply imbedded in various streams of Christian belief and practice, I strongly recommend preachers choose a different first reading. This will allow them to focus on the specific contours of Mark's understanding of Jesus' death, and it will help congregations hear this passage on its own terms.
The brief, suggestive quality of Mark 10:45 speaks against preparing a sermon that tackles atonement theories or tries to explicate Mark's presentation of the cross in all its detail. Consider that Jesus makes this brief comment within a wider context, one that acknowledges the lure of power that ensnares all of us, not only James and John. Note that this passage and the wider Gospel of Mark acknowledge various kinds of oppression that afflict us and that we employ to afflict our neighbors.
What does it mean for the church, for congregations, and for individual Christians to imitate Jesus, who becomes relinquished to the designs of his powerful enemies? And how do we, where we live, experience the realities of the multifaceted liberation that God has accomplished for us through the death of Jesus Christ, and not through our own success or failure at adopting the role of a servant to others?
1For a very good concise analysis of Mark's treatment of Jesus' death, see: Sharyn Dowd and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, "The Significance of Jesus' Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience," Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006): 271-97; available online: www.idst.vt.edu/pubs/Malbon.pdf. My reading of 10:41-45 shares much in common with this essay's.