Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Following hot on the heels of the rich young man who goes away grieving, this week we have another famous story.

Mark 10:39
"The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized."Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 21, 2018

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Commentary on Mark 10:35-45

Following hot on the heels of the rich young man who goes away grieving, this week we have another famous story.

Oh, James and John, you foolish boys. Of course, following Jesus doesn’t mean being powerful like the rulers of the Gentiles. Of course, it’s all about servant leadership. Jesus is so deep, and you’re so shallow. Then we good Christians scout out clever ways to “serve” in self-aggrandizing fashion, as immortalized in the words of Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise”: “You know I’m a million times as humble as thou art.”

And that’s to say nothing of the famous one-off term “ransom” that launched a thousand atonement theories.

Other commentators have already handled these themes with great aplomb on this site, so I’ll turn my attention instead to the peculiar eruption in the text of the word “baptism.”

To this point in Mark’s story, you have far more reason to associate baptism with John than with Jesus. In fact, so far as anyone knows, John was the first to baptize other people. Jewish tradition is full of ablutions, but they are all performed on oneself (let us call that autobaptism). John was the one who got the idea to perform ablutions on others — or better, to invite people to submit themselves to a rite of purification performed upon them by another (this we can call heterobaptism).

So, John turns up at the Jordan “baptizing in the wilderness” and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). In response, “all the country… were being baptized by him” (Mark 1:5). Then, having just barely established the new precedent of heterobaptism in water (hydroheterobaptism, anyone?), John ups the ante considerably with the announcement that someone else is coming to baptize them with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8, which would give us pneumatoheterobaptism). By the way, preachers take note, Luke/Matthew/Q add on the bit about fire (pyropneumatoheterobaptism), but it’s not in Mark. Sure enough, Jesus comes along to get baptized (Mark 1:9) and in the process gets doused with the Holy Spirit, too (Mark 1:10).

Still, baptism seems to stick to John like a locust to a stalk of wheat. In Mark 6, the unsavory business at the Herodian household, John is three times called “the Baptist,” as he is again in Mark 8 by the disciples when Jesus teases a confession out of their halting lips. Jesus too speaks of “the baptism of John” in Mark 11:30, asking whether it is heavenly or human — though when the chief priests and scribes and elders decline to give an answer, he does too, leaving us still in the dark. Jesus never earns the appellation “Baptist” for himself and makes no allusion to Christian baptism, which is perhaps why the longer and probably later ending feels the need to draw the connection (Mark 16:16).

The point is: Jesus’ use of baptism imagery in the confrontation with James and John is unexpected, indeed startling. By way of synoptic contrast, Matthew blames the boys’ mom for asking the glory question in the first place and retains Jesus’ words about a “cup” he must drink but not about a baptism he must undergo; Luke drops the episode altogether, though in another context he places a similar thought on Jesus’ lips: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50).

Even if, say, Mark bumped into Paul en route to Rome and peered over his Epistle-writing shoulder round about Romans 6, the expected result would be to tie baptism to Jesus’ burial rather than to his passion as a whole, as the Markan text seems to suggest.

All told, this baptism business is not the biggest nor the most important interpretive move regarding the cross in the New Testament. But the allusion to baptism is nevertheless an evocative one, and in some ways more promising than the elusive “ransom.”

But what does it mean? Restricting ourselves only to the Markan clues, we can glean a few ideas.

First, the cross is heterobaptism — it is a passion that one must undergo, not an action that one chooses to undertake. The distinguishing feature of baptism in Mark (and in Christianity) is precisely that it is not performed upon oneself, although one may approach it willingly, as Jesus does. James and John misunderstand the glory that they are pursuing actively, for Jesus’ “baptism” is not a matter of action but of passion. Their boastful assurance “we are able!” earns a response from Jesus whose irony can only be grasped by those who read to the end of the story: you bet you’re going to undergo this baptism, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

This passion, this cross, this heterobaptism then sheds light on what it means to be a leader who serves not by lording but by submitting. It even illuminates, to a degree, what it is to be a “ransom” — there is a marked element of helplessness in being the trading token or sacrificial lamb.

All this would seem to be a commendation of pure passivity — and perhaps in activistic, boosteristic, optimistic American culture there is something to be said for confronting our folks with the passivity of the passion now and then — were it not for an allusion way back in Mark 1: the gift of the Spirit.

John’s baptism is only hydroheterobaptism, but Jesus’ baptism — which every early hearer of Mark had probably undergone and/or seen done, even if the Gospel didn’t have much to say about it — adds on the pneumato element. Not that this is an altogether comfortable thing. In Mark, the main jobs of the Spirit are to drive into the wilderness, proffer words in the moment of persecution, and get fatally sinned against. Being possessed of the Spirit is also a passion.

Really, James and John had no idea what they were getting themselves into.