As I have mention in my two previous Lent Reflections, one of the dominant themes in the Gospel of Mark is the journey that Jesus and his disciples travel along the road to Jerusalem, the holy city of David. With each chapter and verse of the story, we are observers as Jesus and his band of disciples move further down the road with Jerusalem coming closer into view. Indeed, in Mark 10:33, Jesus specifically tells them, “See we are going to Jerusalem.”
Most likely those who followed Jesus knew they were headed to Jerusalem; what faithful Jew would not know the direction to Judaism’s most important city. So Jesus’ acknowledgment that they are headed to Jerusalem seems out of place and unnecessary, unless the mention of the direction in which they are headed is intended to mean something.
So, the question becomes, why does Jesus state specifically that they are headed for Jerusalem? And in hearing Jesus say that they are going to Jerusalem, for what purpose did the disciples think they were headed for the holy city? Did their understanding of the trip to Jerusalem match that of Jesus?
Maybe they assumed that he would go into Jerusalem as the conquering Messiah. Perhaps they thought that when they reached Jerusalem, Jesus would take his rightful place as King of Israel and overthrow the Romans. Possibly they followed Jesus towards Jerusalem, hoping that they would be participants in this rule of Jesus in David’s city. Most likely they did believe that Jesus’ purpose in continuing on the road to Jerusalem was so that he would be made a 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 demand; “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). It seems that they are aware that in heading to Jerusalem, Jesus intends to take his rightful place as the promised King of Israel, and it appears that they are very interested in securing their own places of authority, closer than any others to the seat of power.
These two disciples, and I would venture to guess the other disciples as well, seem to believe that following Jesus leads to glory, power, and prestige. They assume that by following Jesus to Jerusalem they will inherit seats of authority next to Jesus, one on his right and one on his left. Yet, these disciples, as well as the others, fail to understand that there is no glory apart from the cross that looms in Jerusalem.
Jesus had spoken to them about what would happen in Jerusalem two other times before this exchange; he would be arrested, beaten and killed. Indeed, right before James and his brother come to make their bold request to Jesus, Jesus tells all of the disciples, one more time, that he will suffer and die. But somehow they failed to hear, or better yet, 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 they are reserved for whom they have been prepared by God. What might he mean by his response? The clue might be found in another place in Mark.
The only other spot in Mark where people are said to be on the right and left of Jesus is in the crucifixion scene of chapter 15. In verse 27 of that chapter, we read that there were two bandits crucified with Jesus, one his right and one on his left. Moreover, just before we read of these two other crucified victims on either side of Jesus, we are told about the inscription that hung above Jesus on the cross that read, “King of the Jews”; an historical note that Mark utilizes for irony.
Whether or not this is a correct reading, it does seem reasonable to suggest that the author of Mark is tying these narratives together. In doing so, the story makes clear that those who seek places of power and glory in Jesus’ kingdom are not worthy to be crucified with him. Rather, the outcasts and the reprobate of society share in his suffering; they are his companions in death as they were in life. And, as he and his fellow criminals against the state hung on those crosses, the glory-seeking disciples were deserting him.
There is no doubt that Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to take his place as king; so in that regard James and John were correct. Yet, just like Peter’s misunderstanding of what it meant to call Jesus Messiah, the brothers failed to comprehend that the kingly glory of Jesus is found not in a worldly throne, but in his death on the cross. Jesus is crowned King in his crucifixion. 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, kingly glory comes not in thrones of power, but in the cross of suffering.