Glory vs the Cross: Mark 10:35–45
The discipleship section comes toward a close with the third Passion prediction, after which the disciples, far from acting like children, comport themselves as spoiled brats, again displaying colossal obtuseness as we once more see the contrast between the theology of the Cross and the theology of glory.
The third Passion prediction (which the lectionary omits for the twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary time but includes for the weekday reading for the Wednesday of week 8) is the most vivid of the three, where many Markan catchwords and themes meet. The disciples are “on the way” (en tē hodō), the way of discipleship, going up to Jerusalem, where Jesus has already predicted his necessary death. “Up” is not without significance: geographically, Jerusalem is on Mount Zion, a small mountain, and pilgrims and travelers would make an arduous upward journey. Here the way of the Cross begins to transform into the way of glory.
Jesus is leading (proagō) them, as if he’s ahead and those who follow are some distance behind because they’re “afraid” (10:32). The other two times proagō appears, in 14:28 and 16:7, Jesus and then the young man at the empty tomb indicate a final journey to Galilee, after the Resurrection. And so, here we see the Cross–glory and death–resurrection patterns again: Jesus is leading the way to his and their crucifixion in Jerusalem, but he will also lead the way for them after his Resurrection.
His way is their way: they’ve been called to carry their own crosses (8:34), and here Jesus reminds them that “we” are going to Jerusalem, and gives them the most detailed Passion prediction of all. In the first Passion prediction, Jesus stated that the elders, chief priests, and scribes would reject him (8:31). In the second, Jesus stated that he would be handed over into the hands of men (9:31). Here, in the third, Jesus states that the chief priests and scribes will hand him over to the Gentiles (10:33). It’s as if the first Passion prediction involved the Jews, the second Gentiles, and the third both: representative of the whole world, Jew and Gentile conspire together to kill the Christ, to kill God.
The vivid details of this third Passion prediction provided in Mark 10:33–34 also predict the precise events of the Passion according to St. Mark. He is handed over (14:41) to the chief priests and scribes (14:53), who will condemn him to death (14:64) and deliver him to the Gentiles (15:1), who then will mock him (15:29–30), spit on him (14:65; 15:19), flog him (15:15), and kill him (15:37). But Jesus will rise, as he predicts (16:1–8).
Jesus proves himself a worthy prophet in Mark’s Gospel; his prophecies come true. Beyond the above, he predicts his betrayal (14:17–21) and the apostasy of Peter and all the disciples (14:26–31). Mark does more than simply show that Jesus is a reliable prophet, however; dominical prophecy serves irony. Immediately after Jesus’s prediction about his being condemned to death comes true (14:64), those spitting on and beating Jesus dare him to “Prophesy!” (14:65). Well, he just did.
And, of course, there is juxtaposition: the disciples are afraid, but they’re not too fearful to engage in a bit of glory seeking as we return to play another round of “who is the greatest?” James and John, part of the inner triad, among the first disciples called, come to Jesus like mischievous children wanting a “yes” before letting their parents know what they want. Addressing Jesus as a mere “teacher” (10:35), like the rich man who failed to follow Jesus, they state that what they want is glory, as if they didn’t hear or just plain forgot the Passion prediction immediately prior. They wish to sit at Jesus’s left and right in express “glory” (10:37), above the other Apostles. So much for heeding Jesus’s command to them to “be at peace with each other” (9:50), as their furtive request makes the other disciples indignant when it’s exposed (10:41).
Like the voice speaking to Peter at the Transfiguration, Jesus responds to their desire for glory with the word of the Cross. The disciples don’t know what they are asking because they’ve forgotten, if they ever knew, that the one and only way of glory is the way of the Cross. Jesus asks them if they can undergo his baptism and drink his chalice (10:38), references to his coming suffering and death.
They don’t know what they’re asking, and when they reply, “We are able,” they don’t know what they’re saying. But they’re going to find out: Jesus informs them they will indeed receive Jesus’s baptism and chalice (10:39), but their subsequent position in glory is not up even to Jesus (10:40).
“Baptism” and “chalice” (or in many translations “cup”) in this passage are tensive symbols, suggestive, polyvalent. Catholic readers hear here the two chief sacraments of the Faith. The passage presents the first instance in literature of “baptism” linked to suffering. In the world of Mark’s story, it’s natural to see baptism as involving suffering, for Jesus received his call to sacrificial death precisely at his Baptism when the heavenly voice (1:11) alluded to Isaac’s sacrifice in Genesis 22. Jesus’s baptismal vocation is suffering and death, and John and James and the others will be baptized with the same suffering, and the sacrament of Baptism is baptism into Jesus’s death (see Rom 6:1–4).
So too “chalice” or “cup.” While, in the Old Testament, the “cup” is often negative, indicating judgment and wrath, it can also be positive and promissory (as in Ps 23:5, “my cup overflows,” and 116:13, the “cup of salvation”). And so too, the Eucharistic reference here connotes a positive paradox: Jesus will institute the Eucharist in Mark 14:22–25. The chalice of Jesus’s suffering becoming the Eucharistic chalice of salvation as the way of cruciform death is also the way to life. John and James and the disciples drink there of Jesus’s chalice (14:23, and so more prophecy is fulfilled), which is a chalice of both wrath and salvation.
Jesus declares that the Eucharistic chalice at that Passover meal is “my blood of thecovenant,” which, like the blood of the aboriginal Passover lambs and (thus bringing again the theme of the New Exodus to bear), will spare the many for whom it is poured out from divine wrath and death (14:24). And yet, Jesus will drink it new as salvation mere days hence, after the Resurrection, when he drinks it new in the kingdom of God (14:25), after which it for us too becomes the chalice of salvation.
And so, the pattern obtains in the story and in the sacraments: suffering and Cross precede salvation and glory, and Baptism and Eucharist connote and convey both.
The other ten disciples hear of James and John’s request, and they’re livid. Jesus then takes the occasion to level them, giving his famous teaching on humble service, perhaps the second heart of Mark’s Gospel, after Jesus’s teaching on the Cross (8:34–38). In doing so, Jesus subtly recalls the theme of the earthly murderous powers like Herod Antipas and his Herodians: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them” (10:42). But the Christian way is opposite: “But it shall not be so among you” (10:43). Instead of ruling in a hierarchy of power, like Herod, the way to greatness is the way of service, being a diakonos (10:43), a table waiter, and being first, the greatest of the great, requires humiliation lower than that, slavery, being the slave (doulos) of all (10:44).
The pattern of Cross and glory here is obvious in the subsumed paradoxical pattern of humiliation and exaltation, and so Jesus reminds them of his example: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).
In our age in which religion has been reduced to morality, exemplary readings of this passage abound, as if the main point was some sort of simple service to others. If we stop there, however, we lose the force of the Cross; we lose grace, reducing religion to rules. In fact, the passage is relentlessly apocalyptic, the language of “ransom” raising the concept of Christus Victor. Christ will not simply serve by humbling himself to his humiliating death on the Cross; he will in fact hand himself over to the one who holds the power of death, Satan, ransoming those whom Satan holds in bondage. Jesus makes himself slave to sin, death, hell, and the devil, and destroys them thereby.
In the Old Testament, the “cup” often refers to drinking the cup of divine wrath; see Pss 11:6; 16:5; 75:8; Isa 51:17–23; Jer 25:15–28; 49:12; Zech 12:2–3; Lam 4:21; and Hab 2:15–16.