10 October 2015

Mark 10: 35-45, serving the hungry
and beggars in ministry and liturgy

I was reminded in Crete recently that ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford


In these tutorial groups in previous years, the Bible studies have looked at different themes, including:

● The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, not for the following Sunday, but the Sunday after, so that any of us who are preaching have opportunities to reflect on the readings before beginning to write a sermon.

● The Johannine readings, including Saint John’s Gospel, the Johannine Letters, and the Book of Revelation, in various combinations.

● The Pastoral Letters, which are appropriate studies in ministry.

Heroes of the Bible and heroes of the faith.

The choice is yours, but while you think about this, I have prepared a short study for this morning [10 October 2015].

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for tomorrow week [Sunday 18 October 2015], the 20th Sunday after Trinity, are:

Job 38: 1-7; Psalm 104: 1-10, 26, 37c; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45.

The Gospel reading (Mark 10: 35-45) is probably the Gospel reading you also hear at your ordination as deacons, and so it is an appropriate Gospel reading for our first Bible study together in this tutorial group this morning.

Mark 10: 35-45

35 Καὶ προσπορεύονται αὐτῷ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωάννης οἱ υἱοὶ Ζεβεδαίου λέγοντες αὐτῷ, Διδάσκαλε, θέλομεν ἵνα ὃ ἐὰν αἰτήσωμέν σε ποιήσῃς ἡμῖν. 36 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τί θέλετέ [με] ποιήσω ὑμῖν; 37 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Δὸς ἡμῖν ἵνα εἷς σου ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξ ἀριστερῶν καθίσωμεν ἐν τῇ δόξῃ σου. 38 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐκ οἴδατε τί αἰτεῖσθε. δύνασθε πιεῖν τὸ ποτήριον ὃ ἐγὼ πίνω, ἢ τὸ βάπτισμα ὃ ἐγὼ βαπτίζομαι βαπτισθῆναι; 39 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Δυνάμεθα. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τὸ ποτήριον ὃ ἐγὼ πίνω πίεσθε καὶ τὸ βάπτισμα ὃ ἐγὼ βαπτίζομαι βαπτισθήσεσθε, 40 τὸ δὲ καθίσαι ἐκ δεξιῶν μου ἢ ἐξ εὐωνύμων οὐκ ἔστιν ἐμὸν δοῦναι, ἀλλ' οἷς ἡτοίμασται.

41 Καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ δέκα ἤρξαντο ἀγανακτεῖν περὶ Ἰακώβου καὶ Ἰωάννου. 42 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Οἴδατε ὅτι οἱ δοκοῦντες ἄρχειν τῶν ἐθνῶν κατακυριεύουσιν αὐτῶν καὶ οἱ μεγάλοι αὐτῶν κατεξουσιάζουσιν αὐτῶν. 43 οὐχ οὕτως δέ ἐστιν ἐν ὑμῖν: ἀλλ' ὃς ἂν θέλῃ μέγας γενέσθαι ἐν ὑμῖν, ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος, 44 καὶ ὃς ἂν θέλῃ ἐν ὑμῖν εἶναι πρῶτος, ἔσται πάντων δοῦλος: 45 καὶ γὰρ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου οὐκ ἦλθεν διακονηθῆναι ἀλλὰ διακονῆσαι καὶ δοῦναι τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ λύτρον ἀντὶ πολλῶν.

Mark 10: 35-45 (NRSV)

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 baptized 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 baptized, you will be baptized; 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.’

Introducing the reading:

Whenever I read this Gospel story (Mark 10: 35-45), I think back to my childhood days. I remember all those preparations for football matches, as we lined up to pick sides. And how we all wanted to be among the first to be picked for a team.

Everyone wanted to be picked first, everyone wanted to line up there beside one of the two captains, no-one wanted to be picked last, even when there were enough places for everyone to get a game.

I can still see them: 9- or 10-year-old boys, jumping up and down on the grass, waving our hands or pointing at our chests, and pleading: “Me, me, please pick me, I’m your friend.”

“Me, me, please pick me.”

And then when we were picked how we wanted the glory. Slow at passing the ball, in case I might not score the goal. Better to lose that ball in a tackle than to pass it to someone else and risk someone else scoring the winning goal.

And that’s who James and John remind me of: wanting to be picked first, wanting to be the first to line up beside the team captain, being glory seekers rather than team players.

No wonder the other ten were upset when they heard this. But they were upset, not because they wanted to take on the servant model of priesthood and ministry. They were upset not because James and John hadn’t yet grasped the point of it all. They were upset because they might have been counted out, because they might have missed out being on the first team, on the first XI.

And their upset actually turns to anger. Not the sort of candidates you would like to meet at a selection conference.

Did James and John think that opting to follow Jesus, becoming disciples, was a good career move?

And what did James and John want in reality?

They wanted that one would sit on Christ’s right hand and the other on his left.

Now, even that might not have been too bad an ambition. The man who stood at the right hand of the Emperor in the Byzantine court was the Emperor’s voice. What he said was the emperor’s word. And so, in the creed, when we declare our belief that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, we mean not that there is some heavenly couch on which all three are seated, comfy and cosy, as if waiting to watch their favourite television sit-com.

Christ as the model for diaconal ministry

In Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity … the Christ-figure is wearing a simple deacon’s stole, and is seated with the Father and the Holy Spirit to his left and to his right

When we say that Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” we mean that Christ is the Word of God. In some way, I suppose, this is what Andrei Rublev was trying to convey in his icon of the Visitation of Abraham, his icon of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament, which we are looking at as an aid in the Bible Studies in the seminar on liturgy with full-time MTh students on Monday morning [12 October 2015].

In that icon, the Father and the Spirit are seated to the right and left of the Son. Indeed, in that icon, Christ is wearing not the elaborate high-priestly stole of a bishop, but the simple stole of a deacon at the table.

For James and John to want to be seated at the right and left of Christ in his glory – not when they were sitting down to a snack, or travelling on the bus, or even at the Last Supper, but in his glory (see verse 37) – they were was expressing an ambition to take the place of, to replace God.

But to be like God means to take on Christ’s humility, as we are reminded in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.

We are made in the image and likeness of God, and then God asks us, invites us to return to that image and likeness when Christ comes in our image and likeness – not as a Byzantine emperor or Roman tyrant, but just as one of us.

Wanting to be first, wanting to be noticed by those with power and privilege, is not a model for diaconal ministry.

At present, we see deacons as serving in a one-year transitional ministry, on the pathway to priesthood, perhaps even eventually to the episcopate.

And it is good that those who serve the Church as bishops and priests are reminded on days like this that they were first ordained as deacons and that they remain deacons … that the diaconal ministry, the ministry of service, is at the heart of the ministry of the Church.

In a sermon almost 400 years ago on Whit Sunday 1622, the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes says all three orders of ministry depend on this one ministry of diakonia, through which they truly become a “ministry or service; and that on foot, and through the dust; for so is the nature of the word.”*

In his epistles, a word that Saint Paul uses for ministry is διακονία, the ministry of the διάκονος, the one who serves like those who wait on tables, the ministry of those who help meet the needs of and remind us of those who are neglected and needy by either collecting or distributing charity and making sure they are fed.

Serving the people

You may be wearied of being reminded by me that the word liturgy (Λειτουργία) is the work for and of the people. But in its truest sense this is not the work of nice people, good people, people like us, but in its crudest use in Greek the work of the many, the service of riff-raff, even the beggars.

I was reminded in Crete recently that The Beggars’ Opera translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα.

In other words, the liturgy of the Church only becomes a true service when we also serve the oppressed, when we become God’s ears that hear the cry of the poor, and act on that, when through the Church Christ hears that cry of the bruised and broken.

Deacons are to encourage us all, archbishops, bishops, priests, laity, to take stock again. We are challenged by diaconal ministry to move from merely acting out the liturgy to making the church a sacrament, a taste, a sign, a token of the promise of, a thirsting for the Kingdom of God.

And to do this great task, as the ambitious pair, James and John, are reminded in our Gospel reading, we must be deacons first in ministry, servants and slaves. We could translate the Greek original of verse 43 (ἀλλ' ὃς ἂν θέλῃ μέγας γενέσθαι ἐν ὑμῖν, ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος) as: “and whoever wishes to become great among you must be your deacon.”

To be a great Church we must be a Servant Church, a deacon Church, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for [the] many” (Mark 10: 45).

The foundation of all ordained ministry is our diaconate. We are called first and foremost to serve. And when we serve the people, when in obedience we meet them in their suffering, then we can hear their cries and their prayers and truly serve them in the services of the Church and in the Divine Liturgy (see Hebrews 5: 1-10).

It was in humbling himself as a servant that Christ truly became the role model for all deacons, priests and bishops.

Are we willing to be like Christ in our ministry?

Christ asks us that in this Gospel reading. Are we willing to drink the cup that he drinks, or to be baptised with his baptism (see verses 38 and 40)?

Of course James and John were. See how this hot-headed pair, the sons of Zebedee, went on to serve the community of the baptised and the community that shared in the one bread and the one cup, the community that is the Church, the community that in baptism and in the shared meal is the Body of Christ.

James – not James the Brother of the Lord, whom we remember on the following Friday (23 October 2015), but James the Great – was executed by the sword and became one of the first Christian martyrs (see Acts 12: 1-12).

John too lived a life of service to the Church: he was exiled on Patmos, and although he died in old age in Ephesus, there were numerous attempts to make him a martyr. And, of course, he gave his name to in the Johannine writings in the New Testament.

Martyrdom comes in many forms. In essence the word means witness. But the first step in martyrdom is dying to self, to self-ambition, to self-seeking, to self-serving. Your life must be a life that is testimony to your most cherished beliefs, testimony to Christ himself.

We love our titles in Anglicanism – canon, archdeacon, prebendary, dean – and we can all too easily stand firmly on our dignity, and even on our dignitaries if they get in our way.

But you are not entering a career with good prospects. There is nothing wrong with any one of you wanting to be a bishop. There is something wrong if you are here seeing that as a career goal.

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 45).


Almighty God,
whose Holy Spirit equips your Church with a rich variety of gifts:
Grant us so to use them that, living the gospel of Christ
and eager to do your will,
we may share with the whole creation in the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
Let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life, and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Note: 18 October is also the Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist. The RCL readings for that day, if chosen, are: Isaiah 35: 3-6 or Acts 16: 6-12a; Psalm 147: 1-7; II Timothy 4: 5-17; Luke 10: 1-9.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This introduction to a Bible study was prepared for a tutorial group with part-time MTh students on 10 October 2015.

No comments: