We now come to the third and final foretelling of his passion, death and resurrection by Jesus. It is not insignificant that it follows immediately on the story of the rich man and the teaching of Jesus that goes with it. We are now going to see what discipleship of Jesus really means.
"They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem." A statement of fact but pregnant with meaning. They were on the road, not just any road, but THE road and that road goes to Jerusalem and points to all that Jerusalem will mean for Jesus and his followers. Jesus is the Road, the Way and his way brings him to Jerusalem, the carrying of his cross, the letting go of his life in love of his Father and us, leading to the final triumph. Those who wish to be his disciples have to be ready to walk that road with him.
The disciples have not quite reached this stage of discipleship yet. As Jesus steps out firmly on the road to Jerusalem, his disciples straggle behind. They were “in a daze and those who followed him were apprehensive”. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was out of his mind. To go to Jerusalem at this time was asking for trouble, serious trouble. Everyone knew the Jewish leadership was out to get Jesus. Jerusalem was the last place to go.
Jesus shows them he is under no illusion about the situation. He gives them a detailed description of what is going to happen to him, more detailed than in the previous foretellings. The key term “handed over” is used again and, for the first time, a handing over to the “Gentiles” is mentioned. Condemnation to death will come from the leaders of his people but the carrying out of the execution will be the work of the Romans. It was not just the Jews who were responsible for Jesus’ death; we all were in the person of the Roman Gentiles.
Nevertheless, earlier on the disciples had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and
Saviour-King of Israel. In the second prediction they had revealed an awareness that what Jesus was predicting was going to happen and so debated who his successor might be. Now, for the first time, the last part of the prediction – rising after three days – seems to be getting through.
Perhaps it was in that frame of mind that Jesus is approached by two of his closest disciples, James and John. However, it is also clear that they showed little understanding of all that Jesus had taught them so far. They approached him gingerly: "Master, we want you to do us a favour." Replies Jesus: "What is it you want me to do for you?" (We will deal with this question again in tomorrow’s reading.)
The answer of the two brothers indicates how little they have understood of the mind of Jesus: "Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory. (After all, you did say three times that you were going to rise again after your death.)"
This is a perfect example of what the Chinese call guanxi, using a personal acquaintance or relationship to get in by the back door and obtain a favour otherwise out of reach. And by “glory” they are almost certainly thinking in worldly terms of Jesus as an earthly, victorious, all conquering king. The kind of person they expected the Messiah to be.
“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus tells them. They neither know the kind of King Jesus is going to be nor do they know the price he is going to pay to enter that kingship. This is clear from the next question he puts to them: “Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with which I must be baptised?” This is a clear reference to Jesus' passion and death, the price he will pay to reveal God's love for his children.
We remember, later in the garden, as the weight of his coming passion presses him down, Jesus prays that the cup be taken away. “Baptism” implies a total immersion and Jesus will be totally overwhelmed with suffering and shame and humiliation.
Do the two disciples realise this? Are they ready to go through this with Jesus on their way to the privileges and glory they are asking for? “We can,” they confidently boast without realising just what is involved. In fact, with the rest of their companions they will scatter and disappear when these events overtake their Master.
Nevertheless, looking further ahead Jesus generously tells them that they will indeed one day share Jesus' cup and his baptism of suffering and death. James would be one of the first martyrs of the young church. However, as to giving them the places of honour they were looking for, that was beyond Jesus' power to give. “They belong to those to whom
they have been allotted.” In other words, these places are not just for the asking; they have to be earned. They will be given, not to those who furtively ask, but to those whose love most closely approaches that of Jesus himself.
Not surprisingly, the other ten were highly indignant when they found out what James and John had done behind their back. They were not indignant at the impropriety or the daring but that they had been taken advantage of. They wanted exactly the same things
Following the same pattern as the other previous incidents, the prediction of the Passion and Resurrection is followed by a show of misunderstanding by the disciples, leading to a teaching. And that is what comes now.
Jesus patiently gives them another lesson on what real greatness in his Kingdom consists of. In the “world” to be great is to have power over others, to exercise authority, to be able to control and manipulate people to be at your disposal, to use people to attain your ends. In Jesus' world those are really great who put themselves and their unique gifts to promote the well-being of brothers and sisters, especially those in most need. And the more people we can serve the greater we are.
'Authority' is not to control but to empower. And it is the role of anyone in authority to generate ideas, energy, creativity in those for whom one is responsible. In other words to
serve those who have been entrusted to one's authority. But it is a corruption of the word to become 'authoritarian' in such a position. After 2,000 years of Christianity it is a lesson practically all of us have yet to learn.