In my Introduction to New Testament class, I was amused to discover that among those scholars seeking after the “historical Jesus” are some who use something called “the criterion of embarrassment.” This aptly named criterion is based on the following observation: Human beings generally do not like to divulge things that might be embarrassing to them. (Clearly, the developers of this criterion have never been on Facebook). So, if one finds something in the New Testament scriptures that might have been particularly embarrassing to the early Church, it is probably based on some nugget of historical fact. For example, the idea that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own, one of the twelve, is not only well-attested; it is deeply embarrassing, and therefore likely to be “historically true.” The value of this criterion is somewhat dubious. After all, how do I know what would or would not have been embarrassing to a first century follower of “the way”? But, sometimes I come across a reading that stirs up that gut feeling of embarrassment within me, and while I may want to avoid such a passage, that feeling of embarrassment is probably a sign that there is truth there, a truth that I need to hear and grapple with.
To tell the truth, I find today’s reading from Mark about James and John pretty embarrassing. This is not entirely surprising, because, of all of our New Testament writers, Mark seems to specialize in telling embarrassing disciple stories. Nevertheless, this one stands out. In part, it stands out because of who James and John are: they are two of Jesus’ most trusted companions. Along with Peter (and possibly his brother Andrew), they are in the inner circle. They get to see things that the other disciples do not get to see: for example, Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead, or more recently, Jesus transfigured in glory upon the mountain top speaking with Moses and Elijah.
Immediately before today’s reading, Jesus has just finished telling his disciples for the third time, this time in even greater detail, that he is going to be handed over, condemned and killed and on the third day raised again. This will happen in Jerusalem, and they are on the road to Jerusalem now. Any day, they will be there. And so it is with this additional urgency, that James and John, who have seen Jesus radiant with glory on the mountaintop, scramble forward to secure the best spots for themselves in the greater glory that is to come at any moment now.
“Teacher,” they say, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask you to do.”
“Mhmm. What do you want?” Jesus replies.
“We want the two best seats, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory.”
(Sigh deeply, and cover face for a moment to let this land.)
I would venture to guess that most teachers have experienced that moment when a student asks a question that so betrays their total lack of understanding of anything one has said over the last few classes that one wonders, “What the heck am I doing? Where have you been for the last few days?”
Surely this was that moment for Jesus.
Had he not just broken up an argument among his disciples over which one of them was the greatest? Had he not just told them, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”? Had he not just said, “whoever wants to be my followers must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?” And here are James and John asking for what? The vice-presidency of the new Republic of Israel? The choicest seats at the heavenly eschatological banquet? How can they still not get it? How can they not see?
Jesus is probably a little embarrassed for them as he says with some frustration in his voice, (Sternly and quietly) “You do not know what you are asking.”
(louder with intensity, and as if expecting a negative response) “Can you drink the cup that I am drinking? Or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Come on James and John! Get your heads out of the clouds, and look and see what lies ahead of us. Can you accept the cup of judgment from the hand of God on behalf of a people estranged from God and from each other? Can you undergo the ordeal to restore and renew the people of God?
One might suspect that James and John did not entirely know what Jesus was asking when they responded with surprising confidence, “We are able.”
I imagine Jesus, somewhat taken aback by their response. His voice softens, and he looks upon them with love as he says, “You will share in the cup that I am drinking and in the baptism that I am baptized with, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant.”
We don’t hear from James and John again in this passage. I imagine that they fell silent as this pronouncement washed over them. Such a silence is the sound of hopes and expectations of glory confronted with the reality of suffering and the cross. Such a silence is the sound of first Isaiah’s Judean kingdom once confident that Jerusalem the holy city could never fall confronted with its destruction and with exile. It is an embarrassed silence that understands that the ways we go about seeking for security and power and glory in this world profit us not.
From this embarrassed silence a new hope for restoration and life emerges. One like the suffering servant of second Isaiah sets out a new way for us and beckons us to follow. It is the Son of Man who draws back the curtain, exposing all of our posturing and pretenses and grasping for power, in his own vulnerability and powerlessness on the cross. And it is Jesus who exposes our lack of love for others and our lack of faithfulness to God through his reckless love and steadfast faithfulness.
But Jesus doesn’t want us to be embarrassed or ashamed; Jesus wants us to be able. Jesus wants us to be able to participate with him in the cup that transforms estrangement into unity and in the baptism that transforms death into resurrection. Jesus wants us to be able to participate in his self-emptying love in reaching out and giving of ourselves in daily service to others.
At this table we remember the glorious one who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. We come forward to offer our selves to the service of that one; and we are made able because Christ is with us and shows us the way.
Are you able to drink the cup?