Ransom: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Twenty-Second Week after Pentecost
Twenty-Second Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 10:35-45
1) This is the eighth week of a twelve-week chronological walk through several chapters in the Gospel of Mark.
2) The three verses immediately before this passage (Mark 10:32-34), in which Jesus announces (again) his imminent suffering, death, and resurrection, should be included in this reading as well. Here’s why: Mark 8:22 - 10:52 is an important section within Mark’s Gospel that is best considered as a whole (remember, the chapter and verse numbers we have today were added hundreds of years after Mark’s original composition). It’s bookended by Jesus healing two blind men (the man at Bethsaida and Bartimaeus), and accordingly, between these healings the story’s central theme is Jesus attempting to “open the eyes” of his disciples with respect to his death and resurrection. Three times he announces this coming trial; three times the disciples drastically misunderstand; three times Jesus responds with a corrective teaching - and this week’s reading is the third of those correctives. Including verses 32-34 in the reading this week (and recalling the first and second times through this pattern, which we explored a few weeks ago) helps us keep this threefold structure in mind.
3) Like many storytellers before and since, Mark is trading here on the power of “three,” both to highlight the subject matter and to drive home particular points. For his audience (including us!), the cross is a difficult thing to understand: Let me get this straight - you say the long-awaited Messiah has arrived - and now will be disgraced, suffer, and die? And so Mark dramatizes this dilemma, including Jesus’ explicit teachings about it, by presenting a threefold story. What do Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection really mean? This is Mark’s answer - or better yet, this is Mark’s story about Jesus’ answer to this crucial question.
4) The first time through the cycle (Mark 8), Jesus rejects the power of military conquest and domination, and instead takes up the posture of the suffering servant (drawing on the ancient tradition in Isaiah 53). The second time through (Mark 9), Jesus redefines “greatness” as becoming a “servant of all.” And this third time through, Jesus both returns to the theme of servanthood and sums up his role with the arresting (and often misunderstood) phrase, “a ransom for many.”
1) As they approach Jerusalem, and having heard twice now from Jesus about his impending suffering and theirs - the disciples are afraid (Mark 10:32). Jesus adds another layer to the announcement: not only will he suffer and die, and not only will he be betrayed; he will also be shamed, mocked, and flogged. And in three days, he will rise again (Mark 10:34).
2) The disciples don’t get it the first two times - and sure enough, they don’t get it this time, either. James and John (with Peter, they make up the trio in the “inner circle” of disciples) impetuously ask that Jesus “do whatever we ask of you,” a formulation that recalls Herod’s rash, drunken vow (Mark 10:35; 6:22-23). Their request, as it turns out, is a picture of spiritual hubris: they want to spend eternity sitting in seats of honor beside Jesus. Jesus demurs, but the other ten disciples are nevertheless jealous and angry with James and John - and so Jesus, no doubt exasperated, calls them all together one more time for a teaching on servanthood. For the love of God, listen: the Romans may understand greatness in terms of brute force and tyranny - but we do things differently! As I’ve taught you many times, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). Don’t you see? We come not to be served, but to serve! We’re not about ascending into the power of supremacy for the sake of domination - on the contrary, we’re about descending into the power of servanthood for the life of the world.
3) This is what true greatness looks like, as one of the oldest hymns in the Christian treasury puts it: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:5-11). This is nothing less than Jesus’ signature move - and he calls us, any who would follow him, to make it ours as well.
4) And this emphasis on the beauty and dignity of servanthood forms the context within which we can understand what Jesus means when he says that the Son of Humanity came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This phrase is frequently interpreted as supporting either Christus Victor or penal substitutionary atonement theory, as if the “ransom” is a price paid to the Devil, or to God, in order to secure humanity’s salvation. But in these verses Mark mentions no such need and no such payee - strange omissions if that’s really what was on his mind. So strange, in fact, that he must have had other ideas.
5) What ideas? Well, for starters, a “ransom” is something of value given for the sake of liberating a captive - and in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus does indeed come as a healer and liberator. But what particular ailment, what particular captivity is highlighted here in these chapters, again and again, three times in a row? It’s not captivity to demonic forces; nor is it captivity to an unpayable debt owed to God. On the contrary, it’s the disciples’ captivity to self-centeredness, and to conventional notions of power, prestige, and supposed “greatness.” Even last week’s story of the rich man fits this pattern (“for he had many possessions”), and helps fill out the picture of the prison from which Jesus intends to set us free. Following Jesus means liberation from the cell of self-absorption, opening us up to God and neighbor in humility, generosity, and love - which is to say, opening us up to true servanthood. This is what Mark pointedly, repeatedly underlines in Mark 8-10; the dignity of servanthood is nothing less than this section’s organizing theme. Thus the phrase, “to give his life as a ransom for many” amounts to a poetic way of saying, to pour out his life in servanthood to humanity, even to the point of death. The incarnate Son of God gives something of value - his life - for the sake of our liberation, our learning to follow him along the Way of being a “servant of all” with humility, generosity, love, and grace.
1) This is the perfect week to explore the meaning of the cross and resurrection in Mark: the cross as the dramatization of Jesus’ devotion to being “servant of all,” and the resurrection as the dramatization of how the Way of servanthood - aka the way of love and generosity - cannot and will not be defeated, even by the most disheartening, cynical forms of betrayal, cruelty, and death.
2) Though the phrase “to give his life as a ransom for many” is often interpreted as supporting an atonement theory of penal substitution (in which Jesus suffers a punishment in our place in order to satisfy divine justice), Mark’s overwhelming focus here is on the true greatness of servanthood as opposed to the world’s conventional, self-absorbed, counterfeit forms of greatness. The sheer repetition of the three episodes creates an accumulative rhetorical power: Jesus rejects the supposed “greatness” of military conquest and self-promotion (Mark 8), the supposed “greatness” of social pecking-order prestige (Mark 9), and this week, the supposed “greatness” of spiritual pecking-order prestige (Mark 10). In place of these self-centered illusions, Jesus calls his disciples to the humble, down-to-earth way of servanthood, a life of genuine greatness seeking to serve, not dominate; to descend, not ascend; and to humbly, justly, beautifully love, not arrogantly jockey for hierarchical position.
3) For Mark, this way of life is the profound meaning of the cross. Along with his whole ministry, Jesus’ pilgrimage to Golgotha vividly illustrates this way of life, and his resurrection vindicates it, even as it reveals its invincible power. For the noble cause of both demonstrating servanthood and liberating us into it, Jesus is willing to give everything. What should we call such an act of generosity? Call it a gift for the sake of liberating humankind. Or, if you have a poet’s heart, call it “a ransom for many.”