To understand the original impact of today's gospel pericope, we must go back five and six weeks to check Mark's first and second prediction/misunderstanding/clarification passages. Today we have the last two elements of the evangelist's third series. (For some reason, Jesus' prediction of his passion, death and resurrection has been omitted.) In the two prior series in chapters 8 and 9, Mark teaches we're to imitate Jesus' death by being open to whatever God asks of us, and by accepting the presence of the risen Jesus in those whom society judges unimportant. Now Mark takes dying one step further.
Here James and John are given the opportunity to misunderstand what it means to die with Jesus. They represent those leaders in Mark's Roman community concerned only for their own "glorification." Jesus cuts down their power-grabbing request with the statement, "You do not know what you are asking." In other words, "You're asking for the wrong thing." (In next week's Bartemaeus narrative we'll discover what a true disciple actually asks of Jesus.)
Instead of handing over the "glory seats," Jesus reminds the pair of the dying which discipleship entails. He uses metaphors of an immersing baptism and a strong drink. Then he clarifies discipleship for the "indignant ten." "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be among you."
Though the historical Jesus never intended to found a church as we know it, he still presumed his followers would eventually develop some form of "institutional structure." Whatever shape it would take, Mark's certain he didn't want it to be the authoritarian structure some were imposing on the community for which he's writing. Christian authority must be exercised completely different from how authority is exercised in any other society. The only pattern we have is the authority Jesus practiced.
"Whoever wishes to be great among you," Jesus insists, "will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
We can only guess how frequently Jesus reflected on Deutero-Isaiah's Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant, how often he applied the words to himself and his ministry. "Because of his affliction," the slain prophet's followers wrote, "he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear."
Jesus led by weakness, not strength. As the Hebrews author puts it, "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin." Jesus became weak to help us value our own weakness. He could only lead us by giving himself for us.
When I'm treating today's gospel passage in class, I ask my students, "How much is a ransom?" They quickly answer, "It's as much as the person ransomed is worth." Jesus, as our ransom, finds his value in the value of the people he serves. In order to live, he commands his followers to die by completely making themselves weak for others.
As much as Mark had problems with those who were assuming an authority posture contrary to the example of the servant/slave Jesus, he's probably spinning in his grave knowing how a little over a hundred years after he wrote his gospel, some Christian churches began to adopt the authority structure of the Roman Empire which not only killed Jesus, but was the antithesis of everything he believed in and died for. Nothing could be further from the mind and plans of Jesus.