In my Bible reading this morning, I came across the passage in Mark where James and John ask Jesus for a special seating arrangement:
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him.
“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” (Mark 10:35-40)
Now who are these lucky people who will be on Jesus’ right and left in his glory? Moses and Elijah? David and Solomon? Calvin and Luther? The Wesley brothers?
I once thought this was a mystery, only to be revealed at the end of the world. I suppose I imagined some sort of awards ceremony in Heaven, in which the two names would be announced, and the favored pair would be ushered up to the front of the table.
Today, however, it occurred to me that perhaps the answer is right in front of us. We need only to keep reading. A few pages later, Mark states,
It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the jews. They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. (15:25-27)
Who are the two who end up beside Jesus, one on his right and one on his left? The two anonymous criminals!
Now why should we connect 15:27 with 10:40? Here are four reasons I find compelling:
1) These are the only two places in Mark’s account which speak of being to the right and left of Jesus. The repeated occurrence of this unusual phrase in such a short work is, at the very least, suspicious.
2) By themselves, both statements seem superfluous. Why would Mark include the cryptic assertion that two unspecified people were preordained to sit with Jesus? The story would have made perfect sense if Jesus simply concluded with the statement, “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” Likewise, what is the point of specifying that the criminals were crucified “one on his right and one on his left”? Mark could have simply said, “They crucified two rebels with him,” and left it at that. Mark went out of his way to specify “right” and “left.”
3) The phrase, “they have been prepared” (10:40), echoes the sense of preordination that surrounds the crucifixion in Mark’s account. Consider 8:31, “The Son of Man must suffer many things,” and 14:21, “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.”
4) Most importantly, in his response to James and John, Jesus explicitly states that when the brothers ask to share in his glory, they are really asking to share in his crucifixion. The "cup" of 10:38 is the "cup" of suffering which Jesus speaks of in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:36).
Furthermore, the structure of Mark clearly reveals that the narrative in 10:35-40 is intended to emphasize that Jesus is not the king people expect. Moreover, the structure reveals that this narrative is tied to the call to follow Jesus in crucifixion. Consider this brief outline of 8:22-10:52:
This section begins in 8:22-26 with the healing of a blind man. However, this healing is unique in that it occurs in two stages. After the initial healing, the blind man still cannot see clearly, and Jesus is required to act again in order for the man's vision to be fully restored.
This story is immediately followed in 8:27-38 with Peter’s climactic confession of Jesus as the Christ. However, while Peter has begun to see the truth, just like the blind man, his vision is still distorted. Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus reveals his coming death, and Peter rebukes him. After giving Peter an epic smack-down, Jesus proclaims, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (8:34).
In 9:30-32 Jesus predicts his coming death a second time, but Mark tells us that the disciples still “did not understand.” They demonstrate this in 9:33-37, when they immediately begin to argue about who will be the greatest. Jesus replies, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
The third prediction comes in the verses immediately following our passage:
Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (10:32-34)
It is immediately after these words that James and John make their request. The other disciples become angry at the brothers, prompting Jesus to once again explain that they have all misunderstood the concept of glory and greatness.
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (10:42-45)
This section of narrative ends with the healing of a second blind man (10:46-52). Thus the two healings, emphasizing sight, bracket the material which concerns the clouded spiritual vision of the disciples.