“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45). So Jesus instructs his followers, after a bruising encounter with James and John, two of the leading followers of Jesus (10:35-40) which enraged the rest of the disciples (10:42).
The dispute was over status; James and John wanted to claim the places next to Jesus: “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). This was not unusual in the world of that time (indeed, this is still the case in our own times). Public debate that was intended to best the other person was common in ancient Mediterranean societies. Seeking greater honour (higher status) by getting the upper hand, or the last word, in public debate, was common.
In an honour—shame society, such as that in which Jesus, James, and John lived, the culture was characterised by a constant and ongoing “challenge—riposte,” enacted in the public arena. Jesus engaged in such challenges on a regular basis; see the disputations of 2:1-3:6, early in Jesus’s time in Galilee, and later in Jerusalem, in 11:27-12:34.
Such challenge—riposte encounters typically involved the challenger setting forth a claim, through either words or actions; a response to the challenge by the persons who was challenged; then, after further back-and-forth amongst the participants, once the challenge and riposte has run its course, the verdict is declared by the public who was watching the encounter. (See a clear description of this process, as it applies in Mark 11:27–12:34, using the analysis of Jerome Neyrey and Bruce Malina, at https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/43/43-2/43-2-pp213-228_JETS.pdf)
At this moment, Jesus critiques the common process of public disputation; he distances himself from the common cultural practice of seeking honour and working for a higher status. Those who lord it over others, who act as tyrants, are not to be the role models for his followers; “it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43–44). Indeed, Jesus rubs salt into the wound by inferring that James and John were acting like Gentiles (10:52). That was an insult, to be sure, for good Jews (see the sayings attributed the Jesus at Matt 5:47; 6:7, 32).
This was the third time, after demonstrating their misunderstanding of what Jesus was teaching, that his disciples were directly rebuked for their attitude. First, Peter represents the disciples’ lack of clarity about Jesus (8:27–38); then a number of the disciples arguing about being great, and John fails to welcome the activity of a person casting out demons (9:33–48); and now, James and John demonstrate their continued inability to understand the attitude of Jesus towards status (10:35–40).
At least in this last scene, the other ten disciples are angry about what James and John have asked for (10:41). Far too often, on earlier occasions, Jesus has lamented that the disciples failed to understand (4:22, 13; 6:52; 7:18: 8:17, 21; 9:32). It seems that finally, at this moment, things had fallen into place for the disciples. (Or were they simply annoyed at the way the brothers promoted their own interests over the hopes of the other disciples?)
On this occasion, Jesus goes one step further. His own life—or, more precisely, the laying-down of his own life—is to be seen, not just as the model for his followers to emulate, but as “a ransom for many” (10:45). There are important observations to make about this short statement. Those matters will be the focus of a subsequent blog post.
Last week (Pentecost 18) we heard a Gospel passage in which Jesus affirmed that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He refused to draw strong and clear boundaries around his “inner group” simply on the basis of explicit identification with him—rather, he affirmed that it is the actions of people that define where people are to be placed in relation to him. Deeds, not words, define the followers of Jesus.
That line of argument would be take up by his brother, James, in his “letter” affirming that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), and by another follower (by radiation, the evangelist Matthew), who quoted him as saying, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). It is a strong theme in the testimony to Jesus in Christian scripture: actions, not words, define allegiance to Jesus.
This week (Pentecost 19), we hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus becomes indignant with his closest followers, rebuking them for hindering children from gaining access to him. In contrast to the attempts of the disciples to keep the children at a distance, Jesus drew children close to himself and blessed them, saying, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). The boundary line which Jesus draws is clearly not based on age. The ability to articulate a complex theological affirmation is not the key criterion. Rather, it seems that a willingness to search out Jesus, a desire to be with him, is the key criterion.
Jesus has already affirmed the central significance of a child in his consideration of this issue. Mark notes that “he took a little child and put it among them” (9:36), speaking the very clear affirmation that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). Still earlier, Jesus had placed the health of a child at the centre of his focus, when approached by a synagogue leader, who pleads with Jesus, “my little daughter is at the point of death; come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live” (5:23).
We have noted that the child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power, in the society of the day; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me” (9:37). Welcoming the child is a clear manifestation of the paradox that lies at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus is the one who will walk resolutely towards death (8:31: 9:31: 10:34), becoming “the slave of all” (10:44) who will “give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).
Next week (Pentecost 20), we will hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus sadly informs a man of means who prides himself on keeping all the commandments, that still “you lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The man left, shocked and grieving; he could not do what Jesus instructed. Jesus here draws the line of belonging or being alienated from him on the basis of whether a person is able to implement radical actions of obedience.
The passages in our current stream of lectionary readings reinforce the perspective already developed in these earlier sections of the Gospel (chapters 5 to 10). Jesus is not an exclusivist, drawing hard boundary lines close around his group. He is an inclusivist, looking to welcome those from beyond the traditional inner group, inviting in those on the fringe or outside this conventional group.
That’s the consistent message about Jesus in the stories that we read through the central chapters of this account. It’s the consistent theme that followers of Jesus in the 21st century need to ensure are the key markers of the Christian church today.
Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is met each time with an immediate response: Simon and Andrew follow him (1:17), then James and John follow him (1:19), and then Levi the tax collector follows him (2:14). Each leave what they are doing and follow Jesus.
These scenes set the pattern for the rest of the narrative bout the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out following him. He reiterates the call, “follow me”, in later scenes (8:34; 10:21).
The disciples in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel readily demonstrate this response. The disciples, and indeed a larger crowd, did indeed follow Jesus in his journeys around Galilee (2:15; 3:7; 5:24; 6:1; 10:28, 32, 52) and then southwards towards Jerusalem (11:9). Indeed, a group of women who followed him in Galilee continue all the way to Golgotha, watching from a distance as he dies (15:41).
But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.
On the very first occasion when Jesus gathers all twelve apostles together, he gives them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve … to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). To be with him, following as disciples; and to be sent out, engaged in mission.
As the Gospel then reports how Jesus speaks and acts, the meaning of this discipleship and mission is spelled out. The apostles—and other followers—have the opportunity to learn from his teachings and to witness his actions while they are with Jesus, and then to replicate these teachings and actions through their presence in other places.
“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus are characterised from the start of the narrative (1:39). His earliest message was clear: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, believe the good news” (1:15). His activity, also, was striking: he rebukes unclean spirits (1:23–26), “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34).
These same activities form the basis for the work of the twelve as they leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).
As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). Both elements deserve careful attention.
“He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” So Jesus instructs his followers (6:8–9). In the parallel passages for this incident, Jesus is even more strict. In Luke, he prohibits sandals as well (Luke 10:3), and in Matthew, he prohibits both sandals and staff (Matt 10:10)
The description of the mode of dress for the followers of Jesus given here is often compared with the form of dress of a wandering philosopher, particularly of a Cynic philosopher.
Cynic philosophy is named after Diogenes of Sinope, who lived c.400–325 BCE. Diogenes was known as “the dog” (kunos, in Greek) because of his shameless and primitive style of living. Diogenes was given the nickname ‘the dog’ because of his shamelessness. He used to live in a barrel with his only possessions being a robe to wear and a stick to walk.
There are many stories told about Diogenes’ rebellious and nonconformist character. Those who promulgated his philosophy of life, called Cynicism, lived equally simple, basic lives. Sandals, a staff and a cloak characterised many of them (although it seems that a double cloak was worn by many).
Was Jesus telling his disciples to emulate the Cynic philosophers? They were itinerants, travelling from town to town, speaking their views with frankness and then moving on to the next town or village. The followers of Jesus were also to be itinerant, travelling from place to place, boldly proclaiming their message, and staying nowhere for too long.
The second century document, TheDidache, clearly instructs followers of Jesus not to remain for more than two or three days in any one place (Didache 11–13). Jesus here is a bit more lenient; he doesn’t set a time limit, but instructs his followers to move on if they meet resistance. In this way, still, they were to emulate Jesus, as “the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).
It’s not at all clear that Jesus knew Cynic philosophy; the evidence of Cynic activity comes from places outside Israel. The Cynics were active long before Jesus, but continued on into his time, and beyond. Diogenes lived four centuries before Jesus, and adherents to his type of philosophy are known three centuries after the death of Jesus.
The second century CE writer, Diogenes Laertius, includes accounts of a number of key Cynic philosophers in his large work, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The second century CE philosopher and orator, Dio of Prusa (nicknamed Chrysostom, meaning “golden-mouthed”), noted how many wandering Cynic philosophers were encountered in every town or village.
In his 32nd Oration, Dio describes the typical Cynic: “posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, [they] pass around the hat and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place.”
Dio’s criticism continues: “they declaim speeches intended for display, and stupid ones to boot, or else chant verses of their own composition, as if they had detected in you a weakness for poetry. To be sure, if they themselves are really poets or orators, perhaps there is nothing so shocking in that, but if in the guise of philosophers they do these things with a view to their own profit and reputation, and not to improve you, that indeed is shocking.”
For Jesus to be calling his followers to a way of life that could be seen as comparable to this way of living, would be quite a challenge—and quite a shock.
Indeed, there may be a sign of differentiation from the Cynics. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is reported as saying that the features which distinguish a Cynic are “his provision-bag (peran) and his staff and his big mouth” (Arian, Discourses of Epictetus 3.22.50). Jesus states that his followers should carry a staff, and speak their message—but here he prohibits them from carrying a provision-bag (peran, 6:8).
Another point of differentiation may be the command not to put on two tunics (6:9). The Greek word used is chiton. The chiton was a knee-length tunic worn as an undergarment; Josephus reports the common practice of wearing two chitones when travelling (Antiquities 17.136).
Musonius Rufus (Epistle 19) notes that Cynics typically wore two tunics—a tribon over their chiton. The tribon was a more humble garment than a chiton, so the outward appearance projected by a Cynic would have been, quite deliberately, that of a person of very lowly status. But for Jesus, the direction to wear only one tunic reflects an even more ascetic mode of living.
Was Jesus deliberately projecting an image—and a reality—deliberately differentiated from the Cynics? Certainly, direct contact by Jews with wandering Cynic philosophers was most likely reasonably rare. And I think that Jesus isn’t advocating specifically that his followers emulate the Cynics.
Jesus has his own reasons for the call he makes. Being on the move and not tied down to one place, and living simply without all the extraneous baggage, reflected an ethos that Jesus wished to cultivate. The focus was to be on the message and the key actions of the disciples, not on any extraneous or additional elements.
Perhaps what is in mind here is the Exodus story, in which the Israelites prepare themselves to be on the move, with minimal complications. They are to wear their clothes (which lasted them the whole time—Deut 8:4, 29:5). They are to fasten their belt and carry their staff (Exod 12:11), and wear their sandals (Exod 12:11; Deut 29:5). They are to take no bread—God will provide in the form of manna and quail, falling from heaven.
The attention of the disciples, as they engage in mission, proclaiming the message, healing, and casting out demons, is to be directed entirely to the task at hand. They are directed away from carrying too many accoutrements, worrying about provisions, and to focus on the task of proclamation and healing. In this way they are to follow the example and pattern of Jesus.
For that is what he himself taught: “do not be anxious, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we wear’?” (Matt 6:31). And that is what Jesus himself did: “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).