Scots Church Adelaide
Sandwiched between new and old

Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.'

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.' 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?' 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.' 38But 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?' 39They 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; 40but 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. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.'

Sometimes the very familiar Gospel of Mark turns up a surprise. That is what has happened this week. I'm not sure where to go with it all, so this week's First Impression is more a Rambling Discussion of what I have been discovering.

A 'Markan Sandwich' is where "the second gospel frequently interrupts a story or pericope by inserting a second, seemingly unrelated story into it." (The Gospel according to Mark By James R. Edwards p11)

A classic sandwich is Mark 5:21-43 where the story of the bleeding woman is sandwiched in the story of the dying girl. This is a common and well known literary method in Mark. The ‘filling' of the sandwich, and the two outer ‘slice of bread' stories inform each other and help us see what Mark is saying.

I think there are more complicated, multilayer sandwiches, where several stories are sandwiched between two similar pericopes or stories. For example Mark 9:37 and Mark 10:13-16 are two sayings about children which sandwich, or ‘bookend,' teachings about power. The startling images of children, who were powerless in Jesus day, help us interpret the intervening verses. In my own mind, I call this the ‘children sandwich.'

A similar pattern, which I call the ‘status sandwich,' is what I find in this week's reading. We are at the second slice of bread in this sandwich. Look at the table; this week's reading is an expanded version of a similar incident in Chapter 9.

 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.' 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?' 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant (Greek: diakonos) of all.' 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.' 32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.' 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.' 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?' 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.' 38But 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?' 39They 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; 40but 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. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, (Greek: diakonos)44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave (Greek: doulos) of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Both the ‘children sandwich' and the ‘status sandwich' are interpretive methods for understanding the extended treatment of the place of power in Mark in chapters 9 and ten. In these chapters, Jesus makes clear "the implications of being Messiah, and the implications of being a follower of Messiah." They are "about the shedding of worldly power, and the right use of power." There is a storyboard of the structure of Mark from 8:22 to 11:1 in the link above which illustrates this extended teaching about power in the Kingdom. (We can seeherehere,  andhere, that each of the layers of the ‘sandwiches' are related to the issue of power and status within the kingdom.)

What I discern in these two sandwich structures, is that the bottom (second) slice of bread is not merely a repeat of the first. The second slice is like the foundation of the whole multistory thing. There is even more substance than the first layer. In the ‘status sandwich' there is much more said about the coming death of Jesus in the second layer.

Chapter 9 Chapter 10
31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.' He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.'

In the first reading there was an argument about succession after the death of Jesus: Who is the greatest? This time James and John have assumed they are leadership material. They make a power grab; "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." There is nothing subtle here, no "Do you think it would be possible...."

James and John are confident they can "drink this cup." They have what it takes. The irony, of course, is that their ready statement of their abilities indicates they don't really comprehend what they are asking.

It's tempting to interpret the chapter 10 version as the disciples "still not getting it." They have learned nothing since the first argument about status and power in Chapter 9. That's the picture I formed in my initial readings of Mark's gospel. I no longer think this way.

Look what accompanies Jesus teaching about his death.

Chapter 9 Chapter 10
‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.' 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 32 They were on the road (Greek: hodos, the way), going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him....

They have gone from not understanding and being afraid to ask, to being afraid, because they already understand, to some extent, what is coming. Thomas' words in John 11, (Let us go that we may die with him) could have been said by these Markan disciples.

In this bottom layer of the sandwich, Mark is telling we listeners more about the insidious nature of the world's power structures. Even when we have self consciously- eyes wide open- chosen the Way (NRSV "road" is hodos 10:32) of costly discipleship, we can be blinded by conventional understandings of power. We need to ‘regain our sight to follow him on the Way.' (10:52)

This week's reading is a reading for those of us who are serious disciples. It warns those of us who have learned some of the lessons of Chapter 9, that we are still at risk.

Power makes churches uncomfortable. A recent proposal here in South Australia's Uniting Church synod to self consciously examine our use of power was greeted with consternation by some of the powerful people of the synod! I notice that in the last weeks, I have constantly softened the word by saying "status and power," and "hierarchy" in my preaching. We are not comfortable with naked power, but avoiding the discussion blinds us to misuse of power- we prevent ourselves naming it.

Is power an ‘interpreting idea' that I am forcing upon this section in Mark? I think not. In this bottom layer of our sandwich the power motif is made explicit. We might miss the startling nature of the image of the children in the top layer (see here) but we cannot deny the power motif in this bottom layer. He says to them all, not just James and John,

‘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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

This is about power. Traditionally, we have lived this out by placing our bishops in palaces. In the Uniting Church we have protected ministers by having a minimum stipend (now being subverted by fractional placements) but we have never had a maximum stipend, for some reason. We have a non hierarchical structure. We have consensus decision making processes. Our still frequent discomfort with these things indicates our lack of success in upending conventional notions of power.

We are also deeply imbued with the notion of Jesus being ‘at the top' of our non hierarchy. Frequently we serve Jesus, not follow him, even though "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve..."

Bill Loader has astonished me in his commentary on this point. I quote him at length, not sure yet what to do with his words!

[Jesus] is not saying: leave the power to me, or even to God: you are slaves! That would reinforce the power system in which, for there to be powerful people, there have to be powerless and disempowered people. Much of the language of ‘serving God' is tainted with the imagery of servitude towards a ruler, as much of the imagery of worship derives from royal courts (and vice versa). Mark is not presenting Jesus as wanting subservience. In fact he has Jesus says so directly: ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served' (10:45)!

 Being a servant and a slave is not about subservience to Jesus, but about joining him. John's gospel even has Jesus declare that the disciples (and we) are to be his friends not his servants (15:15).

In the language of Mark, we are to walk along the road with him. Even though Jesus may be 'walking ahead of us' he is our friend. He is not the 'friendly boss' who nonetheless calls all the shots. We are in partnership as friends; the idea sounds outrageous! We are friends on the road together. This is how it should be in our living together in church. When we imagine Jesus, our question should be, "What do you think, Mate?" rather than "Lord Jesus, we humbly beseech thee..." Bill says

This is not just task-related, as if it pertains to a particular mission and a particular time or role. Jesus' comments ... declare that this is about what it means to be a person, what it means to be great. We have to add: great - in the eyes of Jesus and in the eyes of God. Jesus espouses these values for himself!

 Something very odd happens if we stop there and exempt God, but it is the most common assumption...

This is typically what I have done! Perhaps I have had a warmer, 'more familiar' image of God than a remote and emotionally distant 'High God in Heaven.' But when has God been friend, and what does friend mean if I go beyond the traditional (and in many ways unsustainable) imaging of God as personal? Back to Bill...

Something very odd happens if we stop there and exempt God, but it is the most common assumption. We are to be like this; Jesus is like this. Is God like this, too? Surely not the almighty father, the king of creation? There is much in the Bible with which to rescue God from that fate. Yet when we examine the teaching of Jesus and the wisdom of the Church's reflection on who he was, we find that this is, indeed, what he meant. At its simplest we can say: Jesus is just like God and God is just like Jesus. His idea of God as father and as king matched his lifestyle and mission: in his hands these were images less of power and more of compassion and caring. Jesus is not an exception in the life of God, an interim stunt, a temporary abnormality which we call grace; Jesus is not the exception, but ‘the rule'. Such a theology is almost unbearable - it survives with great difficulty. Images of power, triumph, defeat of foes, flood back to rescue God from such vulnerability - and soon we see Jesus pictured in full battle dress at his right hand.

How can we think God who is the More, the Ultimate, the Ground of Being, but who is friend. One suggestion at breakfast this morning was that God may be greater in the sense of 'more,' but not 'higher.' I find myself remembering our high school chemistry teacher, also Senior Master, Mr. Boyce. Mr. Boyce started a youth singing group in the local church. (Country South Australia was a wild place in the 70s!) At singing group, he became Geoff. He was a wiser friend who did not tell us what to do, and even tolerated us holding him down, and blowing up his letter box! He was one of us. Is this God?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, 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.

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