10:35 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.”
10:36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
10:37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
10:38 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?”
10:39 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;
10:40 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.”
10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.
10:42 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.
10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Right hands. Left hands. My grandfather, a carpenter, was fully ambidextrous. I am not. Before going to grad school, I was a butcher, and I’m good with a knife in my right hand. My left hand is a good place to keep my watch. It gives me a place to keep my other glove. Many people are more like me, and less like my grandfather.
This was also true, I imagine, in the ancient world. Left hands are the “other hand,” and this becomes more important when you use the “other hand” for personal hygiene.
This recognition makes the request in this scene a little awkward. James and John want to sit on the right hand and the “other hand” of the anointed king in the Messianic Age.
They use the word for “right hand” (δεξιῶν, from which the word “dextrous” derives: it implies expertise). When it’s time to talk about the “other hand,” they say ἀριστερῶν. The word means “noble,” or “worthy of honor,” or “excellent,” or “best.” It is a euphemism that allows them to avoid thinking about personal hygiene. With this circumlocution, James and John reveal what they are really asking. They want to be recognized (in front of the cosmic audience of the Messianic Age) as being dextrous experts, supremely honored.
Probably every preacher knows that, or something like that. And surely everyone knows that Jesus is having none of it. Sitting at his right and left hand is for those for whom those places are prepared, whatever that means.
What is interesting, though, is that Jesus changes the euphemism. He refers to his right hand the usual way, δεξιῶν. But he walks around the issue of personal hygiene by a different path. He calls that hand εὐωνύμων. This word means something like “lucky.”
Why shift from talking about honor to luck? Maybe it is a (not-so) subtle shot at the pretension displayed by James and John: “You want to be publicly honored?” Jesus says, “Good luck with that.”
I think that there is more here. Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup he drinks, if they can be washed just as he is. They assure him that they can. “Drinking the cup” is a regular image used to talk about taking on the challenges that a person faces.
The matter of the “washing” is a bit more complicated. The Greek word is βάπτισμα, which opens our imaginations to Christian baptism. It may be a useful way to imagine what Jesus means, especially if we decide that Jesus is quoting Paul, who wrote (some 30 years after Jesus’ career ended) that when we are baptized, we are “baptized into [Jesus’] death.” That may well be something like what Jesus means in this scene, but it is a bit awkward. Jesus would be talking about his death in Roman hands that he has now announced for a third time, the death toward which this story is going. Christian baptism is generally more religious, and sanitary, than Roman torture.
Whatever Jesus means, this “washing” is not sanitary, nor is it safe.
At the beginning of Mark’s story, John appears in the wilderness, announcing that Isaiah’s old promises were on the verge of coming true: Creation was going to be rectified, and all life would be brought to healing and wholeness. Rome had no interest in allowing Jewish hope to turn the world right-side-up. The struggle would be real, not sanitary, and not safe. People came out to washed in preparation for the struggle that would precede this healing.
This was the washing that Jesus had undergone. In Mark’s story, he came to join that struggle, he just like all the others who had been waiting too long, whose hopes had been withering. If this is the washing to which Jesus refers, he is asking James and John to be sure that they know what they are signing up for.
They do. They actually do. They know that there is a terrible struggle coming. They are right. But they seem a little too ready to imagine themselves safe on the other side of that struggle. They seem to imagine, as green recruits are too prone to do, that they will emerge on the other side of the struggle untouched, unchanged, essentially the same people they were before they enlisted. They are wrong to imagine this. They may not emerge at all. Not everyone does. Green recruits do not know what this means yet.
And there are people who avoid the fight because they can’t be bothered, because they imagine that the change in the world will happen in any case. They imagine that they can slide through it all, wrapped in their comfort. Such people have no idea what Jesus is talking about.
I read an editorial in the New York Times the other day. The writer, Thomas L. Friedman, looked hard at the nature of public life in the United States, which he judges (along with many others) to have moved beyond partisanship to tribalism. He wrote, “In a tribal world it’s rule or die, compromise is a sin, enemies must be crushed and power must be held at all costs.”
You can draw any political conclusions that you choose. It’s not as if I could stop you, in any case.
But I think that the struggle we face in public life (and not just in the United States) is a struggle related to the struggle Jesus is talking about.
Perhaps you agree. Perhaps not. In either complicated case, read Friedman’s editorial. And read Jesus’ words in this scene. This is the cup that we must drink. This is the struggle that we have to prepare for. It is not clear how we will come out of this.