Kathleen Rushton shows how the Sons of Zebedee in Mark 10:35-45 misunderstood Jesus’ vision of radical discipleship which draws us all into relationship with God, Earth and one another.
One of the main themes running through Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home is that everything is interconnected. Pope Francis constantly refers to “three fundamental and closely entwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself” (par 66). Attention to these three interconnected relationships enables a reading of the story of the sons of Zebedee (Mk 10:35-45) for whakawhanaungatanga (making right relationships) with Atua (God), tāngata (people) and whenua (land).
The Scriptures are the framework and substructure of the gospel according to Mark which inserts Jesus, son of God, in his humanity and materiality, into the three interconnected relationships with God, with people and with the Earth. Mark sets out a triad of beginnings. The gospel’s first word is the noun, “beginning” (arche) evoking the creation story of Genesis in which God creates in wisdom. The whakapapa (genealogy) of Jesus begins, therefore, with his connection to creation and to the God who saves: “Beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ (the anointed one), the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). The second beginning is the return to “the beginning of creation” in Mk 10:6. This follows the transfiguration and introduces the radical teachings of Jesus on poverty, powerlessness and child-likeness, which is the immediate context of the story of the sons of Zebedee.
On the way
The radical teaching of Jesus in Mark 10 is part of a central section, which focuses on the formation of the disciples (Mk 8:31-10:52). What it means to follow Jesus is set over time in the context of a journey. There is much tripping around in a variety of landscapes. The journey begins after the healing of a man who is blind in the seafront town of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22). Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah as they are “on the way” to the villages of Caesarea Philippi about 50 kms north (Mk 8:27). Six days later, Jesus is transfigured “up a high mountain apart,” traditionally considered to be Mt Tabor in the south of Galilee.
They “went on from there and passed through Galilee” to the fishing town of Capernaum, eventually journeying through the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan to Jericho, about 160 kms away. In that oasis town, this section ends with the second healing of one who was blind. Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus “on the way.” Between these two stories of the recovery of physical sight, Jesus speaks three times of his rejection, suffering, death and resurrection. The disciples stumble around blind. They do not get what Jesus is teaching them.
Particularly ironic is the request of the sons of Zebedee. James and John begin by treating Jesus as their servant: "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you" (Mk 10:35). Jesus replies as he so often does with a question: “What is it you want me to do for you?” They want to sit “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." They want to be the equivalent of the prime minister and minister of finance in what they perceive will be the basileia (reign) of God. There is immense irony. The reader, familiar with Mark’s story of Jesus, knows the only other mention of right and left is: “And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” (Mk 15:27).
The ten are angry with James and John. Jesus called them and said: "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mk 10:42). The disciples knew this from experience. By this stage of Mark’s narrative, they had been in fishing villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee. They had tramped past countryside estates and small farms. They could well have passed the Fortress of Alexandrium. In contrast to those who lord it over them and to their internal problem of striving for honour and power, Jesus continues his radical teaching. In word and deed he incarnates a radical relationship of serving or ministering (diakonein).
Diakonein – to serve, minister
Prior to the James and John story, Jesus was teaching the disciples about an essential part of the meaning of discipleship. Serving will lead to death and resurrection (Mk 9:31). At that time, “on the way”, the twelve were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Later when they came to Capernaum, the disciples did not answer Jesus when he asked them what they were arguing about. So he explained to them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant (diakonos) of all." He put among them a little child. Later, concerning James and John’s request, Mark uses diakonein of Jesus as a model for the disciples: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant (diakonos) … "For the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonēthēnai) but to serve (diakonēsai) and to give his life a ransom for many."
Mark also uses diakonein at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when the angels served him in the desert (Mk 1.13). For the mother-in-law of Peter, the appropriate response to the experience of Jesus’ healing power is to spend oneself in service (diakonein) to him and the community. Women exemplify this ministry (Mk 15.41). This Greek verb, from which comes the word deacon, later became a standard term for Christian ministry (Acts 6:2-4). The verb, and words derived from it, was not part of everyday language. It occurred only in formal classical Greek literature in passages of a profoundly religious nature. It would seem that early Christians adopted this term to use mainly in the context of messages from heaven, or between churches or of commissions within churches. Implied is the notion of mandated authority from God, an apostle or church.
Right relationship with everything
Pope Francis reminds us about the interconnection of right relationship with people and the Earth: “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities … it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble” (Laudato Si’, par 117). Instead of serving/ministering to the Earth: “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (LS, par 2).
To return to the triad of beginnings. The third beginning is in Mark 16, when at the point of what looks like the end, is found the images of the new day and the return to Galilee. It is the place of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus and subsequently that of the disciples who are commissioned to: "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).
Published in Tui Motu InterIslands, October 2015.