Lesson Focus: The Kingdom of God doesn’t operate under the same set of assumptions that the rest of the world works. Children are important, so are marginalized people.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to suffer and die but be raised again.
Understand that selfishness is behind the power structures we work in every day.
Understand that the Kingdom of God works not on a foundation of selfishness but of service to others.
Catch up on the story: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will be ridiculed, shamed, beaten, and ultimately killed. In the context in Mark, Jesus has been teaching about what it means to be a disciple or what it looks like to be a good citizen of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus has begun to display for us that the Kingdom of God is for those who are like dependent little children and those who give themselves away (the rich man). Right after this, Jesus will heal a blind man, further showing that the Kingdom of God is for those who are helpless, who want to be led, who want to be cured of their blindness (spiritually and physically).
The Road Mark reminds us that Jesus and his followers are on the road. For Mark, there is only one road, and it leads to Jerusalem. We benefit from hindsight and know what traveling down this road will lead to for Jesus and his followers. Jesus is also fully aware of what will transpire when they get to the end of the road, and it isn’t pleasant. Even though Jesus has already told them what will happen in Jerusalem, the disciples still do not understand.
As Jesus walks down the road to Jerusalem, a large group follows him. The twelve disciples are there, but Jesus has other followers that weren’t part of the inner circle. Mark tells us that the vibe in the crowd of followers is one of amazement and fear.
At a break in their travels, Jesus pulls the twelve aside, and for the third and final time, tells his friends what lies directly ahead of them. Jesus tells them he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes who will condemn him to die.
Due to the political situation in Israel at the time, the Jews were unable to sentence anyone to death, at least not publicly. So, it won’t be the Jews that kill Jesus; it will be Israel’s Roman overlords. I don’t know what a Jewish execution would have looked like, probably a stoning, but the treatment Jesus gets will be horrific. Jesus will be spat upon, mocked, flogged, and ultimately nailed to a cross like a common criminal. Jesus doesn’t mention the cross this time. He only says that he’ll rise from the dead three days later.
The Request As is often the case in Mark’s gospel, the disciples fail to grasp the reality of what Jesus is saying. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to establish his Kingdom, but not how the disciples understand. All the disciples can see is Jesus entering Jerusalem to establish salvation for Israel by overthrowing their Roman rulers. They expect Jesus to be a revolutionary, not a crucified messiah. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.
We know that the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is trying to communicate to them because of the request that James and John make. As the group is walking along, the two break away from the rest and cozy up to Jesus. I imagine that they’re like little kids trying to get what they want from an adult through their affection. The way that James and John ask their question seems rather brash. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
What a way to ask a question! It’s like someone asking if you could do them a favor without them first telling you what that favor is. If you respond in the affirmative, you’re obligated to do whatever the person wants you to do. Jesus isn’t afraid of an open-ended question like the one James and John put to him. It’s likely that Jesus already knows what they’re going to ask. Politely, the duo asks Jesus if they might sit on the right and left-hand side of Jesus when he establishes his Kingdom.
The way the question is posed is important. James and John aren’t asking to sit by Jesus at dinner. The mental image that people of that time would have had would be a scene where Jesus sits on a throne, and both James and John are seated in smaller thrones beside him.
Literally, James and John want to be Jesus’ right and left-hand man. They want to be the number two and three people with authority in the kingdom established by Jesus. They’ve completely missed the point that Jesus just made in the previous section. Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and be raised again. Jesus says nothing about a throne room in Jerusalem. The kind of Kingdom Jesus is bringing is not like any Kingdom this world has ever seen.
The Response Jesus seems unfazed by James and John’s request. Instead, Jesus asks his question. “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?” Both the cup and baptism functioned symbolically in the Jewish world. After Good Friday, the cup will take on a new meaning, conveying the sacrificial nature of discipleship for those who follow Jesus. In this context, the word that Jesus uses for baptism can also mean “flooded with calamities.”
Again, Jesus is trying to communicate to his followers just what following him will require. Even those who occupy positions of authority will not escape unscathed. Following Jesus, genuinely following him, is not for the faint of heart. Eager to show that they are worthy of power and prestige in Jesus’ Kingdom, James and John answer that they are able.
For once, Jesus’ disciples have answered correctly. Jesus affirms James and John’s ability to persevere and remain faithful. While they are worthy of sitting at Jesus’ left and right-hand sides, it isn’t for him to decide. Instead, those positions of authority and power will be occupied by those for whom it has been prepared.
Upset Disciples Mark doesn’t give us the immediate response of James and John, but I’m guessing that it’s a disappointment. Somehow word gets back to the other ten disciples. They are not happy with the request that James and John put to Jesus. The disciple’s response only seems natural. What would you have done in that situation? I think I would have thought, “Who are you to be on Jesus’ right or left-hand side? You’re no better than me!”
Jesus becomes aware of the dispute that has erupted between his followers, and so, he intervenes. A teaching moment has emerged, and Jesus is going to take advantage of it. Jesus begins by comparing how the Gentile leaders behave to how leaders in the Kingdom of God will behave.
Gentile leaders hold their power as a weapon to be used as leverage to obtain what they want. The great leaders are also tyrants, doing whatever they please, regardless of what it might cost their subjects. Their leaders expect that those underneath them are their servants.
But that is not how it is to be in the Kingdom of God. Instead, whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first must be a slave to all.
That’s some pretty stark language. Jesus isn’t encouraging us to sell ourselves into slavery.
What Jesus is doing is flipping the power structures of the world on their head. If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, you must genuinely serve others. If you want to be first, you must be last.
The reason it must be this way is that this is the Jesus way. Serving and giving a life for the sake of others is the way that God has chosen to work in the world. It is the way that Jesus lived and died so that the world might be freed from sin and the death that results from it.
So What? Jesus is our clearest picture of who God is and what God’s nature is like. We are called to live and love and be just like Jesus. This means that we might, along with James and John, drink from the same cup and be baptized the same way as Jesus was.
But that’s not the way the world generally works. The world generally works by amassing prestige, power, and money to retire into a life of leisure. We want to gain those positions so that others might serve us.
As much as some elements of our culture might encourage service, nobody wants to clean up after others. No one wants to change a poopy diaper. We’d rather not donate money to the church or other worthy causes. Nobody wants to spend countless hours getting the church’s finances in order or keeping the books. Making a funeral meal is a drag. Volunteering to teach children can be intimidating, daunting, and exhausting.
At the end of the day, life would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to care about the needs of others. But that’s not the Kingdom way. That’s the selfish way, the way of the world. Jesus is calling us to a different way. Practically speaking, how we live with each other in the context of our community of faith shapes how we live with our neighbors. Through the church, we develop the practices that shape us as servants for the sake of the world.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Verses 33 and 34 is the third time Jesus has explicitly told his disciples what will happen to him when they reach Jerusalem. Why do you think Jesus tells them so many times what lay ahead?
Immediately after Jesus tells the disciples he must suffer, James and John come to request that they sit at Jesus’ right and left hands when he takes his rightful place as King of the Jews. How are James and John’s questions linked to the previous verses?
What kind of Kingdom do you think James and John were expecting that Jesus would bring? What makes you believe that?
Jesus responds to the duo’s question with a question of his own. Why does he ask if they can “drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
What does “drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” mean?
Why do you think that the other ten disciples get mad at James and John?
What does “their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” mean? Is Jesus’ description of earthy power still accurate for us today? What makes you think that?
In verse 43, Jesus contrasts the leadership structures of the world to the coming Kingdom of God. How are these two leadership structures different? How are they the same?
What does becoming a servant or slave of all look like?
Jesus wraps up the section by saying, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Is your natural inclination to be served? What does Jesus-like service look like?
Make a list of ways that you might be able to reorient yourself to better serve in a Jesus-like way.
 William C. Placher, Mark: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) Kindle e-Book Location 2955).