The Subversion of Hierarchical Power

zebedeeBy Ched Myers, for the 21st Sunday in Pentecost (Mark 10:32-45), originally posted in 2015

Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.

The last cycle of the discipleship catechism begins, as did the previous story of the rich man, “on the Way.” Here the journey is finally revealed as headed to Jerusalem, the place of final confrontation with the Powers (10:32a). Jesus “goes before” the discipleship community, who are amazed and afraid (10:32b). This snapshot will be important to remember at the end of the story, where at the empty tomb we are told that Jesus “goes before” disciples who are both afraid and “ecstatic” (16:7f).

The third and final portent is the most specific in its anticipation of the Passion drama: the Human One will be “handed over” by his community to the Sanhedrin, then to the Roman authorities, and after torture and ridicule, will be executed (10:33). Again Jesus promises that “after three days he will rise,” the meaning of which remains a mystery to the disciples (see 9:10). Do they yet comprehend the Way? The final episode of the catechism demonstrates that they do not, as Mark’s caricature turns dark.

Along with Peter (8:32; 9:5) and John (9:38), James now joins in the rejection of Jesus’ way (10:35ff). Mark has implicated the whole inner circle! They look forward to a Messianic coup, and aspire to “first and second Cabinet positions” in the new regime (10:37; see Ps 110:1). After two cycles of teaching about solidarity with the “least,” we can feel Jesus’ exasperation, as in characteristic fashion he turns the question back on them. Can they embrace his “baptism” and “cup,” which in the symbolism of the story refer to the Way of the cross (10:38)? Mark cannot resist sarcasm: “No problem,” answer the Zebedee boys (10:39a).

Jesus explains wearily that leadership in the sovereignty of God is not appointed executively; it is achieved only through an apprenticeship of the cross (10:39f). The dialectic between power and powerlessness here is ironic. Jesus can guarantee that his disciples will suffer, but cannot grant their request to rule (10:40; Mark’s Christology is decidedly not omnipotent). Indeed in this story it will not be disciples who end up “at Jesus’ right and left hand,” but two rebels—at the crucifixion (see 15:27).

Mark’s caustic tone peaks in Jesus’ retort:

You know how it is among the “so-called” ruling class, and their practice of domination, the tyranny of the “great ones.” Oh but this is not so among you! (10:42f)

This section has proved repeatedly that the disciples do not understand the practice of Jesus (10:41). But this is part of Mark’s pedagogic strategy: such a non-heroic portrait of Jesus’ followers gives lots of room for readers such as us—flawed and ambivalent as we are—to relate to this story.

Now comes the final invitation to “whosoever” in the discipleship catechism (10:43f), imagining a new style of leadership “from the bottom up.” Jesus’ role-reversal between the “great” and the “slave” class is a direct attack on the status hierarchy in the ancient world. This completes Jesus’ challenge to conventional understandings of power: personal, social, economic and now political. The alternative Way is embodied by the Human One, who proposes to overturn the Debt system once and for all by giving his life: a servant who will “buy back” the lives of all who are truly enslaved (10:45).

The cluelessness of the male followers of Jesus in Mark’s story makes it all the more significant that at the beginning (1:31) and end (15:41) of the gospel narrative it is women who demonstrate the quality of “servanthood” advocated here by Jesus. Is Mark implying that in a patriarchal system only women are fit to exercise leadership? This would be the most subversive proposition of all—for antiquity and modernity alike.

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