The Politics of Service—Mark 10:35-45 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Through a startling act of code-switching, Jesus opposes the pattern of rule among his people to that prevailing among the Gentiles. Our politics must take its cue from the model of greatness and rule through service that Jesus articulates.

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36 And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37 And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38 But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ 39 They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 

There are many prominent examples of theological code-switching in the New Testament, whereby terms and phrases with familiar weight and significance in a given frame of reference are given new meanings, invested with different values, or radically re-contextualized. Values and terms such as strength and weakness, master and servant, freedman and slave, rich and poor, or exaltation and humiliation are frequently code-switched in the most surprising ways within the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Within Mark 10 we encounter one of the most significant examples of this, as Jesus contrasts the pattern of rule that holds among the Gentile nations to that which must be among his disciples, declaring that any who would be first or greatest among them must be the servants of all.

Such examples of code-switching need to be approached and handled with considerably more care and attention than they commonly receive. There are various dangers that surface at such points. Perhaps the greatest of these is the temptation to resort to a sort of code-switching that leaves underlying injustices and inequities unaddressed and often even discourages action. An impotent yet palliating transvaluation that neither effects nor entails transformation can take the place of meaningful change. The poor, we may be told, for instance, are rich in Christ, yet such fine-sounding affirmations are seldom embodied either in behavior that treats the poor as enjoying any spiritual advantage nor in the concern for their material needs that should accompany such recognition. Misuse of code-switching can dull us to injustice, substituting for, rather than spurring on, concerted efforts towards overcoming it. Ultimately, however, the world is not saved by redescription, but by resurrection.

Jesus’ code-switching of the cultural frameworks of rule, greatness, mastery, and pre-eminence within our passage has been deeply attractive to many, yet many of those who claim to be governed by it have subjected it to harsh ideological servitude. Writers such as Bethany Moreton have described the way that the notion of ‘servant leadership’ has provided an appealing framework for American evangelical culture, whether in the business, church, or domestic realm and has also been enthusiastically adopted by large companies such as Wal-Mart.[1] While it has occasionally produced concrete changes in the practice of power, all too often the terminology of ‘servant leadership’ has functioned more as a new coat of paint upon old modes of social politics, an act of rebranding that delivers on little of its promise and often even exacerbates existing problems through its affordance of new rationalizations.

Jesus’ teaching regarding rule and service has also proved susceptible to mistreatment on other counts. A number have interpreted it as flattening or levelling out distinctions of rule, producing a radical new egalitarian order, where no one exercises authority any longer. Rulers are now servants and servants rulers, evacuating both terms of any meaning. Hence it is supposed that both authority and submission to authority are rendered inoperative among Christians. Yet this isn’t what Jesus teaches, as closer attention to his teaching on the subject here and elsewhere will reveal.

James and John’s presumptuous request with which our lection begins provides the context for Jesus’ later teaching; we will better understand the teaching if we attend to the detail of Jesus’ initial response to them. The brothers request the places of greatest honour alongside Jesus in his kingdom. Jesus, significantly, does not deny that such places exist. Indeed, in a related passage in Luke 22:24-30, Jesus declares that he will bestow a kingdom upon his disciples, who have continued with him in his trials, granting them to sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus’ response rather draws James and John’s attention to what is required of any who aspire to such positions of honour: they must be ‘baptized’ with Christ in his baptismal ordeal of violent death and share with him in his cup of suffering.

Verse 45, the statement with which Jesus concludes his teaching, reinforces this point. Once again, Jesus is the paradigm of true servanthood and of true greatness, pre-eminence, and rule. It is critically important to recognize that, when Jesus’ practice is allowed to give more defined form to his teaching at this point, it becomes apparent that existing models of rule are genuinely transformed—not merely rebranded—without rule and authority thereby being evacuated of all force of meaning. There is a reversal of the prevalent practices of power, without a relinquishment of authority altogether.

The images of rule and authority to which Jesus repeatedly returns are images formed by realities such as servanthood, shepherding, and fatherhood, all images in which themes of care and nurture for those placed in one’s charge replace culturally prevalent themes of subjugation, tyranny, dominance, and self-advancement. Luke 12:35-48 provides some instructive and illuminating parallels at this point. Verses 42-48 speaks of the good steward who is appointed ruler of the household by his master and faithfully discharges his duties, giving all other servants their rightful portions and watching his master’s house. This good steward is contrasted to the wicked steward who, rather than providing for his fellow servants, employs the resources and authority committed to his charge for personal pleasure, mistreats those under him, and fails to keep watch over the house. Most startling of all, however, is the image of the master returning to find faithful and watchful servants in verse 37, placing them at his table and personally serving them.

Jesus, I believe, implies a similar image of rule in our passage. The true ruler is akin to the household steward who must look after and serve his fellow servants, treating them as those who have, through an amazing act of divine grace, been granted the status of beloved sons and daughters. As the representative of his master in the rule of his household he has genuine authority, but it is an authority that must be exercised for the edification and benefit of others. Christian rule is chiefly discharged in service to others on behalf of and in faithful obedience to a greater Master. Such rulers will be granted positions of particular honour, but these positions are attained through suffering service for the sake of those committed to their charge by their Master, not self-aggrandizement.

Jesus’ contrast between the pattern of rule that should be characteristic of his kingdom and the rule that is characteristic of the kingdoms of the world is not merely a lesson for church leaders, but also implies the possibility of a different model for the politics of this age, a possibility given more shape in passages such as Romans 13. Here we see the political ruler represented as the servant or minister of God, charged with representing God’s own rule and authority to us for our well-being (Romans 13:1-4). Within this framework, the ruler must answer to the higher authority of God himself and is responsible to act for the good of those persons over whom has been entrusted with authority. Both in the case of the leader in the Church and the political ruler, the authority represents God in ministering God’s gift of provision, just judgment, security, and instruction to his blessed people. Authority and rule in such a paradigm is never a matter of private privilege and prerogative but always the faithful ministration of a gift—a common good—to its designated recipients in obedience to a higher Master.

The astonishing code-switching that this represents should still retain the capacity to surprise, even in societies where the effects of attenuated expressions of this radical ethos of rule have done much to weaken the hold of the more extreme and overt forms of the dominance politics of the Gentiles that Jesus describes. Self-advancement and domination of others remain fundamental themes in our politics. Even where the language of public ‘service’ has been widely appropriated, the leaven of its meaning has not yet worked its way through our practice. Yet where there exists a vision—even a greatly limited one—of how rule could be different, existing regimes will not so easily restrict our political imaginations, nor rulers get by without paying at least lip service to the political ethos articulated by Jesus and dissembling their deeper motives. This is a very limited achievement, but it is a foundation upon which much can be built. For this daunting political task, Jesus’ teaching has lost none of its pertinence or potential.

[1] Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 100ff.

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