There is no place for domination or for any exercise of power over others in the reign of God movement established by Jesus. This is a lesson that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, clearly need to learn. They seem to think that the structures of power obtaining in the Roman world will be replicated when Jesus conquers the forces opposing them and comes into his ‘glory’.
They put in a bid for shared deputy leadership positions, as a favour from Jesus. They seek his patronage without reference to the rest of the leadership group who are not well pleased with their presumptuous friends. They are still blind and deaf to what he has been trying to tell them throughout their journey from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem. They do not yet realise that his way is not the way of status or entitlement and that their call as disciples and as leaders of the emerging movement has nothing to do with privilege. It has more to do with enduring the suffering associated with commitment to their mission and with setting others free to be their best selves.
To demonstrate this, Jesus offers an unpalatable alternative: ‘to be slave of all’. He sustains the slavery metaphor and goes on to summarise his own mission with an image that comes out of the world of his time: ‘not to be served but to serve and give life as a ransom for many’.
The ‘ransom’ was the payment made to free someone from slavery. To substitute oneself for a slave was to give one’s life as a ransom for that slave. Reading the gospel from beginning to end helps us to understand the ultimate self-giving of Jesus in death as the climax of a lifetime’s outpouring of love, a love that draws forth loving and liberating action in others.
There are multiple ways of enslaving others, of dominating and of trying to control them to achieve one’s own personal or corporate ends, good or bad. The request of James and John reminds us that we can all lose sight of the liberating vision of the gospel and get caught up in destructive power struggles. As disciples, we hear the words of Jesus, ‘This is not to happen with you.’