On the Right and the Left

Binding30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988) is more relevant than ever. This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 10:35-45.

The petition by James and John shows that the disciples are still “deaf” to Jesus’ portents, continuing to understand his talk of the manifestation of the Human One’s “glory” (en te doxe sou) to mean some kind of messianic coup. Convinced their leader will prevail, they are already considering the administration of the new regime; they lobby for “first and second cabinet position.” The image of “sitting on the right and left” could be an allusion to Psalm 110:1, or to places at the messianic victory banquet, or subordinate thrones. In either case, it is an overtly political euphemism.

Having just complete teaching on the renunciation of social power, we can almost feel Jesus’ weariness and exasperation as he listens to the request of the Zebedees. In characteristic style he throws the question back upon them (10:38), introducing two counter-euphemisms of his own. Narratively, these serve to unify the symbolics of the story as a whole: “baptism” reaches ahead to the dramatic climax of the discipleship narrative, the last supper and Gethsemane. Are they willing and able to undergo what Jesus is already undergoing? The question is of course rhetorical, but Mark cannot resist sarcasm. Oh yes, say James and John; no problem.

The cup and baptism Jesus can “grant”–the disciples in time will indeed suffer before the power (see 13:9ff.). As for the original petition for rank, however, it is deferred to “those for whom it is prepared” (all’ hois etoimastai, 10:40). The supreme irony is that the phrase “on the right and left” will appear again to describe those crucified with Jesus (15:27); it is the rebel Jews, not the disciples, who “take up the cross.” In any case, Jesus here does not repudiate the vocation of leadership, but rather insists that it is not transferred executively. Leadership belongs only to those who learn and follow the way of nonviolence–who are “prepared” not to dominate but to serve and to suffer at Jesus’ side.

The episode escalates in 10:41; the other disciples are “indignant” not at the Zebedees’ request itself, but rather that they are unfairly vying for advantage. Thus the whole community is indicted in the struggle for power, provoking an even more programmatic denunciation. Jesus’ disgust in 10:42 faintly echoes Samuel, when the elders of Israel insisted upon having “a king to govern them like all the other nations” (I Samuel 8:4-20). We can capture the tone of Jesus’ criticism of “politics as usual” in this free rendering:

You know how it is:
the “so-called” rulers of the nations dominate them,
the “great ones” tyrannize them;
but this is not so among you!

Here Jesus frontally attacks the same political powers (ton ethnon; the Roman colonial administrators, 10:340 who will in the end execute him. These “so-called” (hoi dokountes) rulers practice the very philosophy of leadership-as-domination that Jesus had laboriously taught against; they “lord over” (katakurieuousin) their subjects. Repeating himself for emphasis, Mark speaks of the “great ones” (hoi megaloi) who tyrannize (katexousiazousin) the people (searching for the strongest possible language, he may well have invented this intensive verbal form).

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