One of the dominant themes in the Gospel of Mark is the journey that Jesus and his disciples travel. Often, this wandering band is pictured on the road moving toward, as we discover through reading the story, Jerusalem, the holy city of David. As the narrative of Mark moves forward, however, Jerusalem begins to come into clear view, and Jesus begins to point this out to them.
Most likely those who followed Jesus knew they were headed to Jerusalem; what faithful Jew would not know the direction to Jerusalem. So Jesus’ acknowledgement that they are headed to Jerusalem seems out of place, unless the mention of the direction in which they are headed is intended to mean something. Why does Jesus state specifically that they are headed for Jerusalem? For what purpose did the disciples think they were headed for Jerusalem? Did their understanding of trip to Jerusalem match that of Jesus?
Perhaps they thought that when they reached Jerusalem, Jesus would take his rightful place as King of Israel and overthrow the Romans. Perhaps they followed Jesus, hoping that they would be participants in this rule of Jesus in David’s city. Most likely they believed that Jesus’ purpose in continuing on the road to Jerusalem was so that he would be made King and, consequently, they would share in that kingly power.
This expectation is seen most clearly in the request two of Jesus’ disciples make as their band moves even closer to Jerusalem. The brothers, James and John, come to Jesus with the bold request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). These disciples seem to understand that following Jesus leads to glory, but they fail to understand that there is no glory apart from the cross that looms in Jerusalem. The Markan Jesus had spoken to them two other times before this exchange about what would happen in Jerusalem; he would be arrested, beaten and killed. But somehow they failed to hear, or better, refused to hear his words. Instead they continued to see the movement toward Jerusalem as a move toward power and glory and not one that would lead to suffering and death.
The specifics of the request made by the brothers should not be missed. James and John were seeking seats of authority by requesting places on the right and left of Jesus. Jesus affirms that there are such seats, but that they are reserved for whom they have been prepared by God. But the only other place in Mark where people are said to be on the right and left of Jesus is in the crucifixion scene of 15:32-52, where someone is crucified on his right and someone else is crucified on his left. Moreover, just before we read of these two other crucified victims on either side of Jesus, we are told of the inscription that read, “King of the Jews.”
What all of this says to us is that the kingly glory of Jesus in Mark’s narrative is found in his death on the cross, and those who are at the right and left of Jesus in glory are those who take their places on the right and left of Jesus in crucifixion. For Jesus, glory comes not in the heavens, but in the cross.
This overturns our own ideas of greatness and power. Greatness does not come in worldly thrones, but in the throne of a cross. Power does not come by ruling over people, but by serving others. In opposition to the disciples, Jesus was living out true greatness and power by going down the road to Jerusalem that led to the cross.
When I was getting ready to preach one Sunday morning, I sat on one of the front pews in the church. At the end of the pew there was a stack of music books. As we stood to sing, I happened to glance at the title of the books, which read, “Easy Gospel Arrangements” We often are like James and John in that we want easy gospel arrangements. Certainly the gospel is freely offered to all, but it is not cheap in its demands. The real gospel of the real Jesus calls us to give up ourselves in self-sacrificial service to God and others by taking up the cross of Jesus. The true glory of God is in the cross.