Onside with Jesus
“But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you shall be a slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44, my translation).
Whenever enslavement comes up as a metaphor for sin, discipleship, or any other theological category, we White American Christians should get nervous. The Christians Scriptures have been used for too long and continue to be used as ideological props for White Male Supremacy in our culture. I think, at least in our reflections, we are required to interrogate this metaphor and get to the other side of it.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, my translation and emphasis). The words about becoming servants and slaves are conditioned on what the Son of Man does. That’s the logic of the text. The Son of Man ransoms the captives, releases the enslaved, frees those in bondage. That’s the Good News of the text and of the Kin(g)dom of God.
If the enslaved are freed, enslavement is ended. The only way the enslavement metaphor now makes sense is if freed people willingly take on serving. Power over others is, as we shall see below, ruled out of bounds for Jesus followers. Power “for” and power “with” are to be embraced, embodied, and enacted in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom.
This is possible because (thus, “for”) the Son of Man has given his life a ransom for many. The Cross is an event that is accomplished, not merely an example to be followed. There is certainly an exemplary character to the Cross for Jesus followers. Jesus does, after all, invite us to take up our “crosses” and follow him. But providing an example is an outcome of the Cross, not its purpose.
The purpose of the Cross and Resurrection is to release enslaved people, to ransom those in bondage, to rescue captives. David Seeley argues in his article that the model of “servant rulership” described in our text has roots in and resonances with such thought in Greco-Roman philosophy running from Plato through the first-century Cynics. I don’t find that argument compelling. There is plenty of material in the Hebrew scriptures to support the image of “servant rulership” for the Jewish Messiah. Just read the royal psalms.
Seeley has a final section, however, on the word “lutron” (ransom), which is instructive. Up until the appearance of that word in our text, Seeley argues, the imagery would support an exemplary, “paradigmatic” view of the Cross. But when the Markan composer quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man came as “a ransom for the sake of many,” the notion of a paradigmatic death is left behind. Something is actually happening in the Cross.
Seeley notes that (forty years ago) Markan scholars were at pains to separate Markan theology from Pauline theology. He gives four reasons why that is wrong-headed. Paul speaks about the death of Christ as liberating people from slavery (see Romans 6). It would be hard to be a Christian in the late first-century (especially if that Christian were in Rome) and not to have heard of or given a nod to Paul. The sacramental imagery in Mark 10:38-39 sounds so very much like Paul. And the Markan composer was a sharp enough tool to figure out how to dialogue with Paul without plagiarizing or endorsing everything Paul said.
A generation ago (sigh), I spent a week with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary on the conversation between this section of Mark and Philippians 2. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a contested topic in the New Testament guild, but apparently it was. Frederickson made a strong case that “having the mind of Christ” is precisely what the Markan composer also meant when, in chapter 8, the composer accuses Peter of not “thinking the things that are of God.”
Here at the climax of the discipleship discourse in the Markan composition, we have (I think) another marker from Philippians 2. If a Jesus follower is to become a “slave of all,” that is because the One I follow has gone there first. Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “who, though being in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be gripped with both hands, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7, my translation).
The Son of Man, the one in human likeness, embraces the form of an enslaved person in order to release all of Creation from bondage. It is that willing embrace, even of death on a cross, that results in his exaltation as the Name which is above every name. The Good News of the Kin(g)dom is that this is the very character of God! Jesus takes on the form of the slave in order that all the enslaved would be ransomed, redeemed, and released.
Our text “seems well on its way to presenting the Son of Man’s death in terms of paradigmatic suffering and martyrdom,” Seeley writes. “But then the term lutron is added. By using it,” Seeley continues, “Mark invites his audience to understand this death as liberation” (page 249).
Seeley argues that the Markan composer goes no further than this because the composer wants to give a nod to Pauline theology without affirming all of that theology. That strikes me as an argument from silence and a misunderstanding of the Markan composition as an oral text. The mentions of baptism and eucharist earlier in the paragraph would leave the door open for further comment by the performer if the audience setting called for it. Better to address what is in the text than what is not.
What can we draw from this part of the discussion? First, this text is an anti-slavery passage. It may have been used to undergird human enslavement by pro-slavery Christian preachers in the past. I’m not sure of that, but I suspect that was the case. In fact, the very purpose of the coming of the Son of Man is to ransom, redeem, and release the enslaved.
The Cross is not a metaphor, example, or paradigm. It is an effective event. Real people get real freedom. If nominal Jesus followers don’t do that, we aren’t following Jesus. The Son of Man has come to challenge the powers of domination that are the human norm and to change the status of those who are in captivity to those powers.
Second, therefore, disciples dismantle hierarchies. Disciples flatten power pyramids. And that happens at the systemic as well as the personal level. If we think this text is only about personal behavior, we’re wrong. If you want a place where Jesus talks about systemic evil and the need to dismantle a system, this is your text. He doesn’t point to specific Gentile rulers who are lording it over others. Instead, he describes a general system of domination that is typical of the world in which he lived. And he declares that such a system shall not be so among us.
Systems that create and sustain domination of some humans over others are not part of God’s intention or goals. Amassing power, position, privilege, and property is not a feature of following Jesus. Any system that is based on such behavior is contrary to the character of God. Like it or not, this is a political text. It is about how human communities are structured. The Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, when in fact, there is only one Lord and one God. It takes hard work and layers of self-delusion to miss this dimension of the text.
Third, Jesus followers enter “enslavement for all” (whatever that means in my situation) willingly and freely. The actually enslaved never get to choose to serve. Nor are the actually enslaved slaves of all. Only those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can choose to freely serve. And those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can only work for the freedom of others, if we are to be consistent in our Jesus following.
There may be no better expression of this text than Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Christian. Luther loved paradoxes almost as much as the Markan composer. One of his favorites comes from the great 1517 treatise. The Christian is both perfectly free, servant of none, and perfectly slave, servant of all. The freedom comes as God’s gift to all of Creation in Christ. The servitude is chosen as a grateful response for that gift and an enactment of that Good News.
Fourth, we can see why the Cross stands in the center of the Jesus way. He is clearly opposed to the normal structures of power in this world. These are the structures that make “lording it over” the order of the day. A few people gain a great deal from such systems and will fight to the death to maintain what they have. Opposing such systems of power always provokes a violent response.
We live in a time when people are doing much to dismantle hierarchies and flatten power pyramids. The systems of White Male Supremacy, European colonialism, unfettered Capitalism, and unregulated wealth are certainly receiving long overdue scrutiny, criticism, and resistance. Is it any wonder we are witnessing such violent and systematic responses? More to the point, are we American Jesus followers on the “Jesus side” of these conflicts?
Too often we are not. Perhaps a reminder of how the Good News actually works can move us a millimeter closer to that Jesus side.
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.
McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.
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.
Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.