“Teacher,” James and John, the sons of Zebedee, say to Jesus, “we want that whatever we might ask you, you would do it for us” (Mark 10:35b, my translation). “Why,” we might think to ourselves (or aloud), “those arrogant so and so’s! Who do they think they are, putting Jesus on the spot like that! They’ve got a lot of nerve, don’t they?”
Well, maybe they do, or maybe they don’t. One of the challenges of direct discourse in any written document is determining the tone of the speaker. Sometimes the context makes the required tone obvious, but often it’s left up to us as the readers and hearers of the text.
Maybe the Thunder Bros were just wondering if it might be possible for Jesus to do something for them. Or maybe they were engaged in hardball negotiations on their future employment prospects. We can’t be entirely sure. But if we take the Markan composition seriously as an oral document, then we’ll have to make some tonal choices in our reading.
Grammatically, the question relies on verbs in the subjunctive mood. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the outcome is in doubt in the mind of the speaker. But it does mean that the state of affairs contemplated hasn’t yet occurred. The translation, “whatever” is the way that the combination of the particle and subjunctive verb should be translated.
Asking Jesus for something clearly was not a problem. Everyone in Mark’s account is asking Jesus for something, and mostly they get what they ask for.
Looking for perks was also not a problem. On the one hand, if there was anyone who had left behind house, brother, sister, mother, father, children, or fields, it was James and John. Jesus came along the lakeshore and promised to make them fishers for people. They dropped everything and left their father blinking in confusion.
Just a few verses earlier, Jesus made it clear that disciples who sacrificed all that would receive a hundredfold increase – not just pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, but real return on investment “now in this age.” The return was houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields (no fathers in the list, unfortunately).
The Thunder Bros can be forgiven if they missed the small addendum there – “with persecutions.” After all, the benefits package would be enough to distract anyone from hearing the rest of the sentence. So, perhaps James and John – reflecting both on their sacrifice and on the promise of reward – have simply come to collect.
It doesn’t appear that asking for the seats of honor when Jesus comes into his glory is a problem either. Asking isn’t the problem. Jesus doesn’t reprimand them for asking. It’s just that those seats have been reserved for someone else. We, who know the story, realize that the Markan composer means the two brigands who will be crucified with Jesus. But James and John had no reason to know that at the time.
What, then, is the issue here? “You don’t understand,” Jesus replies, “what you are requesting.” Boys, you don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into here. You’re biting off more than you can chew, I’m afraid. It’s not a matter of ignorance so much as it is a lack of appreciation. I think of all the times I have plunged headfirst into something I thought I knew only to discover, to my chagrin and shame, that I was now in way over my head. Such stories from my life are, as the Markan composer might say, “Legion.”
Disciples, be careful what you ask for. You might get it, but you probably won’t like it very much. In this sense, James and John are very much like the rich man in the previous scene. Perhaps he came with a sincere question, hoping for a particular answer. But he had no idea what he was getting himself into. And he walked away, shaking his head in consternation. The Thunder Bros will walk away from this conversation with a similar “run over by a theological truck” feeling.
“Are you able,” Jesus prods, “to drink the cup which I am drinking, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?” The cup Jesus mentions is a cup of suffering – a familiar image in the Hebrew scriptures. The baptism Jesus mentions must also refer to suffering. We can remember the proximity of Jesus’ baptism to the first mention of the execution of John the Baptist. We’ll come back to baptism later, but for now that will do for an explanation.
Here’s where James and John really step in it. Jesus gives them a chance to ask some more questions before they go on. What’s this about a cup? And this baptism thing, didn’t we already do that? Why do these verbs have a continuing sense to them, Jesus? We were thinking that the next phase was the glorification part of the journey. What are you talking about now?
Too bad for them, they don’t ask these pertinent questions. Now, I think, the arrogance comes to the fore. “But they said to him, ‘We are able.’” It’s a one-word reply, blunt and perhaps a bit aggressive – “Doon-AH-thema.” The word has those hard consonants and that decisive long-short-short pattern at the end.
Challenge accepted. Bring it on.
Well, boys, you asked for it. So here it is. You’ll get the cup and the baptism, just as you requested. The seats are already spoken for, but you’re not going to notice that. You’ll be too busy trying to keep your head attached to your neck and your body off the next available cross.
It’s easy to make fun of the disciples in the Markan composition, and I’ve done my share of that lampooning. That’s all well and good until I remember that the characters most like me in the Markan account are precisely those disciples. So, it might be worth looking at their portrayal before we go any further.
Joanna Dewey gives an assessment of the disciples as characters from the perspective of the Markan composition as an oral “document.” Performance criticism notes that oral documents have a more dramatic, conflictual tone than do written documents. That’s one of the ways to keep the audience’s attention. “Accustomed to an adversarial atmosphere,” Dewey writes, “a first-century audience hearing the gospel would probably take the negative portrayal of the disciples much less seriously than contemporary Markan scholars do” (page 90).
The disciples provide examples of how not to behave on the Way. But they also provide examples of how disciples can act in following Jesus. So, it’s a mixed portrait. “The audience is indeed called to imitate Jesus’s life and death but perceives Jesus, not the disciples, as the authority,” Dewey argues. “In the narrative, the disciples provide a means to teach about discipleship and illustrate for the listening audience both successes and failures in following Jesus,” Dewey continues (pages 111-112).
We can be very hard on the disciples, Dewey notes, and numerous scholars and commentators have adopted that perspective. But if one of the purposes of the Markan composition was to simply diss the disciples, it’s not very effective in that effort. The account has a number of positive aspects of the behavior of the Twelve. And in the end, she argues, “the acceptance of Mark’s gospel into the canon does suggest that it was not generally understood as rejecting the Twelve and Peter” (page 113).
The conflicts Jesus has with the disciples, such as in our text for this week, occur in private. That’s in contrast to the conflicts with the opponents and the interactions with the crowd, which happen in public. “Thus, the disciples are not grouped with the opponents within the narrative. Rather,” Dewey suggests, “the narrative uses the disciples to teach the hearers what following entails, to emphasize the difficulties of following, and to maintain plot interest as the disciples do and do not succeed in following” (page 114).
The disciples, therefore, are our instructors – both in their successes and their failures. Dewey asserts that even the failures of the disciples in the Passion narrative do not disqualify them as examples. “If Mark’s aim was to discredit the disciples,” Dewey concludes, “the narrative would be as unambiguous here as it is on the first two levels of conflict; it would not be possible for hearers or readers to expect the disciples’ restoration” (page 114). But since we have the Markan composition, restoration is in fact what we expect, based on history and tradition.
The Markan composition urges us to follow Jesus, not the disciples. Due to the various crises of the churches in the 60’s CE – the return of Jewish Christians to Rome from exile, the Neronian persecutions, the Jewish War with the Romans, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – the temptation to cling to particular leaders must have been profound. We see some of that temptation among the Christians in Corinth, for example.
Any old port will do in a storm. Perhaps portraying the disciples as failures is more for the purpose of perspective than propaganda. If the Markan composition is based on the memoirs of Peter, as tradition holds, perhaps Peter himself emphasized the failings to put off later adulation and allegiance to himself.
For those of us who have mixed records as disciples in a time of crisis for the Church, the Markan composition is a source of both comfort and challenge.
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361
Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.