The gospel reading for 22nd Sunday after Pentecost is Mark 10:35-45. If you would like to see a detailed translation and my preliminary comments, go to this post entitled, “James and John Call ‘Shotgun!’”
In this post, I want to contrast Mark 10:45 with an earlier verse, Mark 8:36. Both of these verses appear in the pattern that takes place three times in Mark – which I will refer to generally as “disclosure discourses.” The pattern appears in Mark 8:31-9:1; 9:30-50; and 10:32-45. The flow of that pattern includes:
a. Jesus discloses his death;
b. One or more of the disciples respond inappropriately;
c. Jesus corrects the disciples’ response with teaching that includes a paradoxical formula: “whoever wishes to save his life/soul shall lose it” and “whoever loses his life/soul … shall save it”(8:35); “If any one wants to be first, he shall be last of all” (9:35); and “whoever wishes to become great . . . shall be your servant” and “whoever wishes to be first . . . shall be slave of all” (10:43-44).
In the first disclosure discourse, Jesus says, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their life/soul?” (The word ψυχὴν could be translated either life or soul, although it seems that most translations follow the lead of the KJV and go with “soul.” The NRSV is an exception.) Having grown up in an Evangelical tradition, I have often heard Mark 8:36 used as the foundation on which certain Evangelical practices and habits are built. If saving one’s soul is greater than even gaining the whole world (surely a hyperbole that intends to signify the greatest lofty goal imaginable), then we can measure the success of one’s ministry by referring to the number of souls that have been saved; we can describe practices like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, etc. as “the Social Gospel” and subordinate them to the real calling of the church – evangelism; we can speak of “personal salvation” as the true goal of discipleship; and so forth.
In addition, having grown up in a Holiness tradition, I have often heard Mark 8:36 used as the rationale for a very safe, almost protective approach to “keeping one’s soul.” I think this was a primary motivation behind separating oneself from potentially harmful and “worldly” temptations by home-schooling or “Christian” schooling, from the primary to the collegiate level, as well the way we were taught to be selective regarding our friends. I don’t say that as a criticism. I believe many of these practices and habits grow out of a genuine attempt to interpret Mark 8:36 as the teaching of Jesus that gives highest, and almost singular, priority to saving one’s soul.
However, in Mark 10:45, Jesus says this about himself: “For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life/soul a ransom for the cause of many.” That is to say, Jesus is willing to lose his ψυχὴν in order to rescue others. I think this points to the courage that discipleship requires – it is not a safe way of neglecting the needs of others in order to preserve one’s own soul. In fact, the paradox of faith, stated so well in Mark 8:35 but often forgotten with the focus on Mark 8:36 is that it is in losing our own ψυχὴν that we preserve it.
If we see Jesus – not as a singular Messiah who goes to the cross so that we don’t have to, but as the one who calls us to follow him in his way to the cross – Mark 10:45 will move us from a personalistic, safe approach to discipleship and toward a daring, self-giving approach to discipleship.