Mark 10:35-45 NRSV
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Appoint us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to appoint, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Some scripture passages are difficult not simply because of what they say but rather because of how our world has changed since the words were first spoken. In Mark, Jesus states matter of factly, “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Our world looks a lot different than the world in Jesus’ time, and legacies and histories of human slavery have made these words in particular harder as time has gone on. What should we do with these words? Is it right to say that to become great in Christian communities we must become slaves? What images do we use when thinking and talking about discipleship in our church? Our history has shown how these passages have been used and misused to further abuse and perpetuate slavery in all its forms. In looking at this passage from Mark, we come to realize our words matter, not just the words we use but the ways we interpret and apply scripture today.
In Jesus' time, slavery was the norm in the Roman Empire with over 50% of the population having descended from slaves or being enslaved. Not many questioned slavery, even within Judaism where God was known for having liberated the Hebrews from slavery at one time. Paul acknowledges their existence in the early communities of believers and followers, going so far as to say, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV). Powerful words of unity and equality! At the same time, the letters attributed to Paul also “mandate that slaves must be obedient to their masters.” Scriptures acknowledge slavery, and for the most part, seems to accept it as a normal part of life without much critique or comment. Jesus even uses slaves in his parables and compares the disciples to slaves at various points in the gospels.
Sometimes slave language might be hard to spot as various translations of scripture prefer to lessen the blow and change the word from slave to servant, but the Greek doesn’t give this option in most places. Servant comes from the word diakonos, where we get the word deacon from today. Whereas slave comes from the Greek word doulos, and it appears 118 times in the New Testament. For instance in Romans 1:1, Galatians, 1:10, and Philippians 1:1, many translations will read, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus,” but it should be read as “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus.” Even Mary in the Magnificat in the birth narrative, says of herself “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his doulē [slave]” (Luke 1:48 NRSV). Here in Mark, Jesus says that to be great, to be first, you must become a slave.
Now, some of us might be thinking this should not be that big of a deal, after all, by using this slave language, isn’t Jesus just talking about humility? Except, slaves are not known for humility in antiquity. People don’t want to be enslaved, so they are not inclined to work obediently and be satisfied with their low status. Often, they were stereotyped in antiquity as “lazy, drunk, dissembling, and disloyal” individuals, “who would stab the master if given a chance.” No one chose slavery, instead, people were enslaved in antiquity either through conquest or by selling themselves into it to escape debt and financial hardship for their families. Once enslaved, slaves were routinely abused and misused as their masters saw fit with no legal recourse. So terrible was this condition, that “families and friends would, if possible, ransom them back” to free them. Again and again, it is important for us not to dismiss the words in scripture, and here, it is important to understand the context that these words sprang out of rather than simply excusing or dismissing them.
We must take scripture seriously because these words have been used to abuse other human beings. The United States itself has a long history of slavery, starting in 1619 when the first slaves landed on American shores. It overshadows the “most famous section of the Declaration,” “the American Creed,” where it reads: “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain [inherent and] inalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.’” These words, penned by future president Thomas Jefferson, ring hollow, as we remember the author “owned some 600 human beings.” Many would declare this nation a “Christian nation,” but we cannot overlook the fact that American Christians used these words to preach “the gospel of eternal Black enslavement, derived from a reading of the Bible where all Black people were the cursed descendants of Ham.” Slave owners would beat their slaves, whipping their backs bloody, while citing the words of Paul to them, the ones which say slaves should obey their masters.
If we only ever took the Bible at its word, there would not have been much reason to end a practice like slavery or continue to work against the forms of slavery that still exist in the world today. Thankfully, Christ’s words are worth more than the ink on the page, as when Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” Remember when I mentioned that families and friends would attempt to ransom the enslaved out of bondage? Jesus recalls this practice through these words, that he chooses to be enslaved to all, to be a ransom for all of us who are enslaved. As Paul says in Philippians 2:6-11, Jesus “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave [...] he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross” (NRSV). “Crucifixion was a punishment associated with slaves.” Our Lord acknowledges slavery, slavery to sin, and enslavement of persons, and declares that this bondage has come to an end. Jesus unrolled the scroll from Isaiah, early in his ministry, to declare this as his purpose in the Gospel of Luke, saying “[God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18 NRSV). People remembered these words, remembered that God declared us all children of God and sought to liberate us through the Son and so Christians also took up the work to end slavery.
The Apostle Paul believes that we are all obligated to someone or something, none of us are ever completely free. Up till Christ, we had been obligated, enslaved to sin, but thanks to Jesus, we have been freed from that old obligation. Paul shares “whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22 NRSV). Paul thinks we are all obligated to someone, but since Christ has paid the ransom, we don’t belong to sin anymore, we now belong to God. This is a God who is not satisfied with us being enslaved to the divine either, as Jesus tells his disciples in John’s Gospel, “I do not call you douloi [slaves] any longer, because the doulos [slave] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15 NRSV). Remember when I shared that discipleship means declaring a teacher or rabbi as your new parent? The whole idea of discipleship is that you won’t remain a child forever, that you will learn from your teacher, mastering all you have been taught and even expanding on it as you grow. In fact, the goal is that one day, you will be the teacher, now able to teach others.
How we think of our discipleship matters. What words we use matters because words come with baggage and words can hurt and do hurt people, the very children of God. Now, some might say that we are being soft or giving into the sensitive feelings of others, but rather, we are acknowledging as Christians that our Lord came to bring life to people, to liberate the enslaved and oppressed. Tell me, if we allow our words, our descriptions to be a burden to others, to hurt them are we really being disciples? Are we really willing to learn what Jesus has come to teach? Jesus does not want more bonded slaves, but friends who willingly and lovingly grow the kingdom of God in this world. Let us choose our words carefully, and hear the heart of scripture, in order to truly bring the kind of love, life, and liberty our Lord promises. Amen.
 Amy-Jill Levine, The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2021), 56.
 Ibid., 58., Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22, And Titus 2:9
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 59.
 Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 63.
 Stephen Prothero, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation (New York: Harper One, 2012), 484.
 Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Anti-Racist (New York: One World, 2019),145.
 Levine 2021, 63.
Pastor Paul Grossman