An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 10:35-45, October 21, 2012
IN A CULTURE that is characterized by inequality, people tend to think and accept as given that to be a leader always implies being at the top, to be admired, kowtowed to, honored to high heavens and enthroned like a demigod. And like any temptation that is often faced by giving in to it, very many people aspire to become leaders and thereby become second to none. In the political arena, many covet the position of president, governor, mayor and barangay captain. The dog-eat-dog competition among businessmen indicates the ambition to be number one in the business sector. That one sends his sons and daughters not to local schools but to London, Paris or New York reflects one’s belief that he must be ahead of others in terms of cultural achievement. In our present culture, no one probably wants to be the last in politics, business and culture. If one could have his way, he would like to make it to the top.
In today’s Gospel (Mark 10:25-45), the disciples of Jesus, who had yet to understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, showed the same secular values. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had the same aspiration. They wanted to be ahead of the other disciples by asking Jesus to have them seated beside him, one on the left, the other on the right (Mark 10:37). Already in Mark 8:29, the disciples recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, and since they thought of his messiahship in political terms (cf Acts 1:6), their request was to be seated in a position of honor and power—this is what right and left hands means--which they would share with the Lord. They would be like two political supporters of a president-elect, wanting to be appointed Secretary of Finance and Secretary of Defense, as a reward for their work. Not only would they have the honor of sitting with the political messiah; they would also possess power, and imitate political rulers who lorded it over others (cf Mark 10:42)
Of course, one aspires to be number one not simply on account of the honor it confers on the one who sits on the throne. Political power is convertible to economic power. One is not so much interested in the salary, which is meager, but in the money involved that comes with the exercise of political power; unexplained wealth goes with it. He profits in almost all business transactions. Also, being at the top gives one the psychological satisfaction that he is a very important person. He enjoys bossing around, and making his importance felt. In fact, a man of secular values loves seeing other people at his beck and call, and depend on him for their needs and survival. It is really amusing when a secular man is put at the top: projects he has not done are credited to him, and words of wisdom he could not have uttered are ascribed to him. People around him laugh at his jokes, even if they are not really funny.
In a secular culture that stresses social differences and inequality, who would not want to be number one? On the other hand, to be at the last is to be reduced to a hewer of wood and carrier of water. To be at the bottom of the social ladder is to be ignorable and expendable. No wonder, the rest of the apostles, having learned of the request of James and John, became indignant at the two brothers (Mark 10:41). They are like so many of us who are so envious because we ourselves covet the position of honor and power, and we do not want others to outmaneuver us. That is why we hide anything that could help in their promotion, and we even resort to characterize assassination just to bring them down, and put them on our own level. We oppose them. And it is a psychological insight that one’s opposition is not always from moral motives, but from personal frustration that we were not able to achieve what others have gotten to their own honor and advantage.
In a Christian culture, however, this should not happen. This is not to say, however, that there should be no leader in the Christian community. Leadership can be, nay, must be exercised in a Christian ministry, but it cannot be exercised in the way secular leaders do. The leader cannot look at himself as above others, much less lord it over them. Jesus was emphatic on this: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:42b-43).
In this pericope, Jesus made three requirements for those who wish to assume the ministry of leadership, and those who are in positions of authority, in the Christian community. First of all, leadership is a call to share in the suffering of Jesus. They must drink the cup that Jesus drank, and be baptized with the baptism he was baptized with (Mark 10:39). If the members must suffer, so should the leader. This means that leaders are to be exposed to the hurt of others, carry their burdens, and even suffer their anguish, even if for many that is none of the leader’s business. They are to be baptized by putting themselves in conflict with evil powers (Eph 6:12) which oppress, discriminate against, and take advantage of the community members.
Second, they assume the role of slaves in the service of others: “Whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:44). Leaders cannot therefore exploit their members, or engaged themselves in seeking their own advantage or in self-aggrandizement. On the contrary, the quality of their leadership is to be seen in the amount of service that they render. Finally, leadership may even call for martyrdom: “For the Son of Man did not come gto be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Time comes when leadership demands that the leader himself willingly gives up his life for the sake of his people (1 Macc 2:50; 6:44); he dies for them (Isa 53:11-12, 1st Reading).