32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
35 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.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But 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?’ 39They 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; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
Before, the disciples and others had been amazed by what Jesus had done – calming the storm, feeding the multitude, healing the sick, casting out demons – but here, it is not what he has done that amazes them, but what he has said. How could it be that those who were wealthy would find it difficult to enter God’s kingdom, but they, who were poor, would receive return for all they had given, but would also be persecuted? And so, they walk along, amazed and puzzled, and the crowds behind them are frightened. Then Jesus pulls the disciples aside and tells them, for the third time, that when they come to Jerusalem, he will be handed over to the Chief Priests and scribes, and condemned to death, mocked and spit upon and flogged, and then killed. But after three days he would rise.
Have we mentioned that Mark portrays the disciples as somewhat dense? They still don’t get it! They still think he will be establishing a worldly kingdom when they come to Jerusalem! James and John come to Jesus and ask him to grant them a favor. Of course, Jesus is much too wise to say he will grant them a favor without asking what it is they want! Their request is to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his kingdom. To me, Jesus sounds sad when he responds that they do not know what they are asking. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Of course, Jesus is speaking of the cup of suffering, and the baptism of death, but they do not understand that. They reply, “We are able.”
Don’t we all jump quickly to the response, “We are able”? When it gets tough, we may think, “whatever was I thinking?” But God gives us the strength we need. Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit would give them the strength as well, after the resurrection. He also knew that they would also face persecution and death, and so he tells them that they will indeed drink the cup and be baptized with his baptism. But the positions at his right and at his left, those are up to the Father to assign. We think of the thieves crucified with him; were those the positions to his right and his left?