Right or left

18 October 2015
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24B (RCL)
Job 38:1-7 (34-41)
Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

There are a lot of people who don’t like God’s response to Job from the whirlwind. Robert Frost in A Masque of Reason mocks the God portrayed in the book of Job. Archibald McLeish is no happier with Job’s God in J.B. The list could go on. Personally, I find God’s answer comforting in a weird sort of way. Whenever I think my problems are bad (granted not nearly as calamitous as Job’s), if I look up at the night sky, or stand in the mountains in Colorado, I am reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Thinking that God has singled me out for whatever reason to visit these troubles on me is just pretty arrogant. Always good to be reminded of that now and then. I think all of the lessons for this Sunday in one way or another are about us moving ourselves out of the center of the picture.

One almost has to chuckle at the ‘face’ of James and John in asking Jesus for a favor, after all we’ve read so far in Mark’s Gospel. They sound like kids trying to trick mom into opening the cookie jar. And then, when they ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in his glory, we almost want to respond out loud: “Even now, they don’t get it?” When they ask their favor, the word they use for “left” in Greek is aristeros, a slightly impolite word in Greek (or a bad omen), just as is sinister in Latin. When Jesus replies that to sit at his right and left is for those for whom it has been prepared, he uses the word euonumos, a euphemism for “left” which literally means “well named.” This is significant because the only other place that word occurs in Mark’s Gospel is at 15:27, where we are told that with Jesus, the Romans crucified to bandits, one on his right and one on his left (euonumos)!

So, the cross is Jesus’ glory, and the two bandits are those for whom it has been prepared to sit at his right and his left in that glory. That certainly inverts our expectations of glory, even if we think we’re smarter than James and John, and know that the Kingdom is yet to come. Mark is pointing at the crucifixion as Jesus’ enthronement.

And again, in this passage, Jesus tells the ten that while the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over their subjects and their great ones exercise authority over them, not so among the disciples. Those who wish to be great will be servant, and whoever wishes to be first will be slave of all. The NRSV translates a straight future tense as “must be,” which is not supported by the Greek. The verb is not in the subjunctive. This is simply a statement of fact. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. The word ransom here sticks out like a sore thumb. It only occurs twice in all of the NT — here and at the parallel passage in Matthew. The root lutr shows up only a total of nine times in the NT. Four of these are in Lucan material: twice in Luke’s introductory material, once in the conversation between Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and once in acts as a quote of a Psalm. All of these instances have to do with the redemption of Israel. The word implies a ransom payment for someone held captive (usually a prisoner of war). Jesus as a ransom for a captive (a hostage held in place of the captive?) is exactly upside down from the expectation of him as triumphant king.

The passage from Hebrews quotes both Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 about Jesus. God is appointing Jesus both King and Priest, but again the image is not what we expect. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, and learned obedience through what he suffered. Hardly an office fit for a king and priest. And having died, he took his own blood into the holy of holies, where he makes intercession for us. In all these, a completely inverted understanding of what God is doing, and how.

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