35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptised with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

See the general introduction to Mark.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Having already been rebuked by Jesus about their failure to understand with discipleship means, (Mk 9:33-37), less than one chapter later the twelve will fail again. Indeed, to add insult to injury, James and John, sons of Zebedee called from Lake Galilee, will be the central figures in this passage about continues to explain what it means to be great. 

Who is the Greatest?

This story also appears in the Gospel of Matthew 20:20-28. The story is structured as a narrative with two problem ‘peaks’; the first is the request of James and John to sit at the right and left of Jesus in the new kingdom, and the second the annoyance of the remaining ten that they should do this.

The dialogue Mark includes in the passage carries its essence: a request by James and John to be, in effect, Jesus’ second in command in the kingdom he has announced and is living. Mark effects his message in contrast to this request: the reaction first of Jesus and then of the ten. Jesus’ speech to them all (v 42 forward) is the key; this is what they need to know!

Characters & Setting

This story takes place as Jesus and the twelve (an inner circle of the disciples: see Mk 6: 6b-13) are making their way south towards Jerusalem. They have turned towards Jerusalem at the beginning of chapter 10 and will arrive there at the commencements of Chapter 11. This single chapter, ‘on the way’ will be a teaching time: Jesus has just told the disciples what to expect when they get to Jerusalem, including his own death; in this passage he will confront those who should be closest to him about their failure to understand, still.

The key players in this story are Jesus, James and John. James and John are the sons of Zebedee called from Lake Galilee with Simon and Andrew (Mk 1:16-20). These two form part of the innermost circle around Jesus. They have received particular teaching from Jesus; their presence at the centre of this controversy is therefore especially disturbing.

Ideas/ phrases/ concepts

Leadership and suffering:

This section of Mark’s Gospel focuses on leadership and follows sections on suffering, and the life of the community. In this story the twelve and particularly James and John fail to understand Jesus’ message and are still focussed on their own reward and power. The disciples might understand that Jesus is the Messiah (the one who would save Israel) but still want Jesus to be a great King in the model of earthly kingship. Their request reflects their hope that they might share in this glory and power: sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory would have brought them honour and prestige. Jesus is clear that their request indicates that they do not understand. Leadership is not about either honour or prestige: it is about service.

Service and servanthood:

Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ message is that greatness is about service and servanthood. The kingdom Jesus wants to establish is to be ‘of service’; it is called to live in unity and trust with God. Servants, in the lowest class of society, could expect no reward for what they did; their actions brought them no power, honour or prestige. These two needed to rethink their role in the new kingdom.

Ransom for many:

As well as indicating how the disciples should live the story sheds further light on Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’ short explanation… “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” not only prepared the disciples literally for what was to come but expressed something of its personal cost. Mark is clear that Jesus knew the inevitable consequence of his teaching and spreading the news of God’s kingdom and was prepared to pay for it.

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

Jesus’ message for the disciples present in the story is relevant today. 

Jesus’ expectations speak loudly to Christian leadership which is not to be about domination or tyranny. If we are to be Christians and followers of Jesus, particularly from positions of leadership, then service and servanthood should be our priority, not the offices on the right and left of the ‘boss’. Indeed, being a disciple may mean personal self-giving and suffering: the Gospel message of bringing power to the powerless and a voice to the voiceless will inevitably bring discomfit and back lash from those who, like James and John, have the most to lose. 

Church interpretation

This reading provides a model for church leadership and all Christians with a focus on service rather than power and control.

Liturgical Usage

This reading forms part of the regular cycle of readings and appears in the lectionary on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B and weekdays in week 8 of ordinary time on Wednesday in year 1 and 2.