Mark’s Gospel portrays the Twelve apostles in a particularly pejorative way. None of the four Gospel authors were reluctant to report the weakness of the apostles’ faith prior to Jesus’ Resurrection, but Mark seems to exaggerate the stories about the apostles’ faithlessness. Although the event in today’s Gospel reading makes the brothers James and John look particularly bad, I don’t think they would be bothered by Mark’s overestimation of their pettiness.
As members of the group chosen by Jesus, James and John were entitled to special consideration. When they asked for places of special honor in God’s Kingdom, however, they were overreaching by far. The seriousness of their offence was demonstrated in the reactions of the other ten. The Gospel says, “they became indignant at James and John.” (Mk. 10:41) This event makes James and John look not only self-concerned, but it portrays them as behaving like pagans. Later in the story, Jesus refers to the intentionally denigrating characterization of the two brothers when he warns the Twelve against behaving like gentiles. (Mk. 10:41)
The pagan religions of the ancient world had a purpose quite different from Hebrew religion. In Hebrew religion, and Christianity, the purpose of religious practice is to learn to do God’s will, and the purpose of prayer (both liturgical and private) is to give God the praise that is due to God. Ancient pagan religions had a goal that was entirely opposed to the goal of Hebrew and Christian religion. Ancient pagan religious practice existed in order to get the approval of the gods and goddesses for what individual worshipers wanted. Hebrew religion and Christianity seek to serve God; ancient pagan religion sought to have the gods serve the self-interests of individuals.
The event in today’s Gospel reading portrays the two brothers as practitioners of pagan religion: they came to Jesus and demanded that he serve their will for recognition and power. Although this event makes them appear selfish and greedy for power, they would probably approve of the caricature.
Jesus’ response to the two brothers describes their lack of faith and instructs us about how to avoid similar errors. Jesus said, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mk. 10:39-40) According to Jesus, faithful religion is not a matter of getting God on one’s side; nor is it simply a matter of putting oneself on God’s side. Jesus says that faithful religion is “drinking the cup” poured out for one’s life, that is, accepting the life and fate one is given and doing so in obedience to God and with charity toward one’s neighbor.
This above is as unpopular a notion as it was during Jesus’ lifetime. The popular notion of religion today, like the pagan practice of religion in the ancient world, sees religion as a way of getting things for oneself. Some Christians believe that religion exists for the purpose of getting God on their side; in this mistaken understanding of religion, God is something that exists for the purpose of providing benefits, either material or spiritual, to petitioners. From this point of view, some people are destined to be winners and others are destined to be losers. Even if religion is a matter of “being on God’s side,” then there is a side to be on and a side to avoid. Jesus’ life and death make sense only if we understand he died to redeem all people rather than a few.
In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples serve as examples of what not to do. The disciples are constantly in the wrong, chronically mistaken about Jesus’ identity, and thoroughly clueless about how to live. This is a literary invention of the author of the Gospel. The congregation for whom the Gospel was written was torn by disagreement and misunderstanding. In the apostles, the author gives his congregation an example to avoid. As I said earlier, I think the apostles would approve. Above all, they would want us to avoid faithlessness, selfishness, and fractious behavior. The apostles would want us not to be mistaken about Jesus’ identity and would probably be quite happy to serve as examples of what to avoid in our religious practice.
Jesus chose to be obedient and faithful to God and merciful and generous to all people. Should we think that there is a better choice than his?