Two kinds of leaders—Mark 10:42-45

I’m going to talk about two kinds of leaders in Mark 10:42-45, but the discussion will make fullest sense if I spend some time in the rest of Mark’s Gospel setting the stage for this.

Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel displays one kind of leadership. Some scholars like to play Jesus’s “Messianic secret” (his invoking silence regarding much of his ministry) off against his signs or glory. But they are envisioning the wrong dichotomy. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is healing and delivering others, even at risks to himself. (His times with the marginalized would not commend him to the elite.) He is not seeking his own honor; his acts of healing are part of his being a servant to others. Jesus spent time with the disabled, and moral and social outcasts—he’s not looking to get the powerful to back his cause.

There are also other kinds of leaders in Mark’s Gospel. These include some of the scribes and Pharisees, whose confrontations with Jesus show them more committed to their stringent interpretations of Scripture than they are to the desperate human needs Jesus is meeting. Still more unlike Jesus are the Jerusalem elite, who flaunt and sometimes abuse their honor and power. Like tenants in the vineyard in the parable Jesus tells in Mark 12, these leaders forget that God allowed them to be caretakers. They do not want to relinquish their power over the vineyard of God’s people.

We should expect the disciples to be different. Jesus is training these relative nobodies to be leaders in his kingdom. Most of them are from modest or poor backgrounds; most of them were also probably not well-educated (although at least the tax collector should have had basic writing literacy). They were Galileans, whom Jerusalemites sometimes viewed as country bumpkins. They should understand that Jesus is about helping those in the greatest need, not about self-exaltation.

But soon the disciples, expecting places of honor in Jesus’s kingdom, begin looking like the other kinds of leaders rather than like Jesus. They try to protect Jesus from being bothered by children (10:15); other followers want to protect him from a blind beggar (10:48). After the disciples try to keep away the children, Jesus has to repeat a lesson he had already given his disciples about receiving children (9:36-37; 10:14-15)!

And before the lesson of 10:42-45, they become even deafer to Jesus’s message. After a rich man refuses to surrender his wealth for the kingdom, Jesus again reminds his disciples that the first will be last (10:31) and that Jerusalem’s elite will precipitate his death (10:33-34). Instead of contemplating this sobering warning, James and John immediately ask to be greatest in the kingdom (10:35-40). (After all, they were just on the Mount of Transfiguration with him and Peter, while the other disciples were failing in an exorcism below the mountain.) This ploy makes angry the other ten: James and John are butting ahead of them in line (10:41)! The disciples had already been debating among themselves who was the greatest, and Jesus had already responded that the greatest would be like a child (9:33-35). His message, however, has obviously not yet sunk in.

So Jesus gives the lesson in 10:42-45. Here he contrasts two forms of leadership. For the first, he speaks about the world’s way of power, exemplified by the “rulers of the gentiles” (10:42). (Keep in mind that, for Jesus’s Galilean disciples, gentiles did not exactly epitomize moral ideals.) This was the sort of raw power that allowed Pilate to hand Jesus over for execution or for the Jewish tetrarch Herod Antipas to have John beheaded (though both Pilate and Herod succumbed to others’ demands in these cases). By Galilean standards, Herod even seemed a “king” (6:14, 22, 25-27).

This differed from the ideal kind of rulership, the reign of God, his kingdom, proclaimed by Jesus (1:15). This divine kingship would someday be manifested in the glory that God’s people were expecting (14:25; 15:43), but it first came in a hidden way—the humble “secret” or mystery of the kingdom I’ve already mentioned (4:11-12). It is a kingdom that belongs to children (10:14-15), inimical to power based on wealth (10:23). And the language of king, besides the pseudo-king Herod, clusters in Mark 15, when his enemies mock Jesus as king of the Jews (15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32) and crown him with thorns (15:17).

The rulers of the gentiles exercise authority in self-seeking, abusive ways (10:42). By contrast, Jesus exercises authority not like the scribes (1:22), but for driving out demons (1:27) and forgiving sins (2:10). He delegates this authority to his disciples—also to drive out demons (3:15; 6:7), waging war against the enemy kingdom of Satan (3:24-27).

In contrast to the power of gentile rulers (10:42), Jesus offers a contrasting paradigm (10:43-44). “This way of the gentiles—that’s not how it must be among you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be slave [doulos] of all” (10:43-44).Jesus uses power to heal the sick (5:30), not to help himself (15:30, 32; cf. Matt 4:2-4).

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Jesus had had to offer this lesson: he has to keep reminding them! In 9:33-34, the disciples had been discussing who was the greatest among them. Jesus then warned them in 9:35 that whoever wants to be first will be last and servant of all. Now again James and John had sought to be highest in the kingdom, and Jesus has had to repeat the lesson. Our habit of competing for honor or attention dies hard.

Yet Jesus is not offering mere abstract instruction. He is offering himself. And insofar as he is our hero, our model of greatness, humbling ourselves must become our ambition! Our Lord is greatest of all, having humbled himself most of all: though being divine, he humbled himself, taking on him the form of a servant, and became obedient to death, even the particularly shameful death on a cross—the ultimate humiliation. Yet God has exalted Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe! (Phil 2:5-11).

And so Jesus gets specific, in 10:45 essentially adding another passion prediction that brings them back to the subject that preceded the quest for greatness (10:33-34): Jesus, the Lord himself, must die. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Mark’s entire Gospel shows Jesus serving, a servanthood that climaxes in Mark’s lengthy passion narrative. “Ransom” (10:45) often meant the price used to buy someone from slavery. Jesus by his own life offers himself as a slave (10:44) to free us from slavery. We could not have saved our own lives for eternity, but Jesus does. In 8:37, Jesus asks what a person can give in exchange for their soul (antallagma psuchê). Here Jesus says that he gives his own life (psuchê) in the place of (anti) many. He gives his life in exchange for ours.

We whom God had graciously appointed as leaders—some of us from lowly backgrounds like the disciples—have a special privilege and opportunity to serve all the more. May we always remember our Lord’s model: for how can we ever serve as humbly as he has served us?

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