The 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Mark 10:35-45
James and John are not the only disciples enticed by visions of a triumphant reign, for the rest of the Twelve fume over the brothers’ bid to outflank them in prominence.
Jesus corrects their vision by holding up the conventions of gentile (Roman) sociopolitical authorities as negative examples. They regularly “overpower” and “tyrannize” others (10:42). They rely on coercion and control to maintain their dominance and prerogatives. Mark has already provided a stark example in the story of John the Baptizer’s death (6:14-29), in which self-interest and self-protection trump justice to ensure John’s demise. Jesus’ trial in 14:53-15:15 will manifest a similar kind of strong-armed political theater.
In absolute contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants and slaves, even if that life means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield power.
Jesus’ final line — “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” — connects to his preceding words about service and enslavement, indicating that his death will be exemplary for such a way of living. His death will exemplify the violence and resistance his teaching and ministry elicit from those who hold power over society, and it will exemplify a radical renunciation of authority and privilege, as these things are normally constructed (see 8:34-36). What makes the renunciation so radical is the identity of the one who does it: Jesus, God’s own uniquely authorized agent.
At the same time, Jesus’ mention of a “ransom” indicates that his death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system. The word in question (in Greek, lytron) indicates that his death does something; it secures a release. This verse often sparks lively debates, and it has a history of, in my opinion, being misunderstood by those who take the notion of a “ransom” to mean a specific type of payment. In those readings, Jesus’ death is transactional, a payment made to satisfy the penalties accrued by human sin or to repay something owed to God.
However, the explicit context in which this statement appears is about power and servitude, not the problem of sin or the need to secure forgiveness. Jesus therefore declares hat God, through Jesus’ death, will free people from oppression and captivity to another power, restoring them to membership in the community that corresponds to God’s reign.