If the preacher is up to it, these texts invite us to delve into questions of how exactly Jesus saves by dying. This is not only the issue of what servanthood looks like but also the issue of atonement – a thorny concept often left on the sidelines like an embarrassing relative best ignored or relegated to its interpretation through hymnody.
From the 11th century we have “Christians, to the paschal victim offer your thankful praises – a lamb the sheep redeeming…” Substitutionary atonement, articulated by Anselm, still serves as a prominent means for us to understand Jesus’ gift of himself. From the 19th century: “Upon the cross of Jesus, my eye at times can see the very dying form of one who suffered there for me.”
These are beautiful and beloved hymns. Yet, we are in danger of two extremes that obscure the Christian path. One is that an elevated view of servanthood can excuse abuse; the other, that we are all off the hook because Jesus has saved us.
The preacher’s job is to represent the image of Jesus’ love leading to his death as both 1) a love that we cannot emulate and 2) a love that we can and must offer to others. It is through these contradictions that we see best who God is and who God calls us to be in relationship to our neighbors.
Aaron Couch links these two themes by focusing on this text being the third of Jesus’ passion predictions in Mark’s Gospel (8:27–31; 9:30–31; 10:32–34).
Each passion prediction is followed by a picture of the disciples' complete lack of understanding. In each case this leads Jesus to teach about his way of relinquishment, service and suffering, seeking to help them see that the reign of God is unlike any human domain. The whole collection of stories is framed by two accounts of Jesus giving sight to the blind (8:22–26; 10:46–52).
The request by James and John for positions of special privilege has every appearance of a manipulative power grab. . . . Jesus responds in two ways. First, he asks if they are able to drink the cup he will drink and be baptized with the baptism he will endure. The reference to the cup is likely an image for God's wrath (Isaiah 51:17). βαπτιζoμαι, which carries connotations of being submerged and overwhelmed, may recall being “overcome by many waters,” a frequent image for distress in the book of Psalms. It would seem that Jesus expects that this allusion to the fate awaiting him would be sobering for James and John, but such is not the case. Their affirmative answer becomes tragic in light of their performance at Gethsemane. Jesus' second response is to tell them that the positions they ask for are not his to give, but rather belong to God.
When the other disciples become angry. . . Jesus turns everything upside down with regard to measuring status. Greatness is identified with a life of service. . . . Jesus presents himself as the best example of refusing to grasp for ever-greater status and power. Instead he gives away everything, including finally his own life. . .
Jesus identifies the pursuit of status as a primary source of competition and violence, and for that reason rejects it. Jesus should not be understood as offering a different method of competition (who can be most humble), but as dismissing entirely the sort of competition that serves domination and hierarchy. All such striving is an obstacle to love, and as such is not compatible with life in the reign of God. – Aaron Couch
A culture such as ours, bent on the value of competition and winning, leaves us at a disadvantage with regard to letting go of status.
Here are some questions that grow out of this Isaiah reading to help sort out the issues faced by the preacher:
This text always is connected with the suffering of Jesus as the Anointed One. How do we read this text also as the suffering servant who stands in for a community? Is this call to submit to being wounded a call from God? ... Do we make scapegoats of people when we should bear communal responsibility?
Isaiah 53:10–11. . . declares it was the will of God to crush this sufferer. How do we understand Jesus' suffering as the will of God? Do we say to people that their suffering is God's will? – Valerie Bridgeman Davis
Grappling with these same questions, Pastor Couch offers a boiled-down version of the theological tough nut these readings pose for the preacher.
As interpreter of scripture, the preacher must decide whether the servant is indeed a sacrificial victim or whether the language of sacrifice is employed to describe the servant's death as a martyr. – Aaron Couch
The Jesus who calls on James and John in the Gospel story to take on his “baptism” here becomes the high priest who also “in the days of his flesh” agonized in his full humanity over his own sacrifice.
Melchizedek, a figure in Genesis 14, is a king who is also a priest. Much more is not known about him. The reference, while strong and apparently meaningful to the recipients of this epistle, primarily asserts for us that God placed upon Jesus the same two honors given to Melchizedek: king and priest. These are the powers to both rule and serve.
Aaron Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.
Valerie Bridgeman Davis, ordained in the Church of God, has taught homiletics and Old Testament at Memphis Theological Seminary and contributed to publications on Africana Worship.
Homily Service 39, no. 11 (2006): 36-45.