In the Gospel of Mark, a chair is not simply a chair. Rather, the seat one takes is the indicator of one’s social worth. At each meal, everyone takes his proper place at the table. The powerful sit with the powerful in the highest positions and the weak sit with the weak in the lowest positions. To sit in a better seat is to demand respect from those below you.
Naturally, the characters in the Gospel desire the highest seats. Thinking that Jesus will receive the seat above all others as Messiah, the disciples come to him asking for thrones on his right and left. As friends of the king of Israel, they expect to receive the very best seats, seats above those of the current rulers of Israel, the priests and the scribes.
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, “Grant 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 grant, 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; 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. For 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).
James and John have no idea what it means to sit at Jesus’ left and right in glory. Just as the scribes who like to have the “best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at the banquets”(12:39), the disciples likewise desire to take seats above others. They want to be powerful and respected too. Jesus responds by redefining greatness, or rather, by correctly defining greatness. Being great means taking the worst seat, putting one’s self last. One who is great renounces power and refuses praise from men.
This error of the disciples stems from a misunderstanding of the Messiah. They, along with the scribes, believe he will be a king as David was a king. He will be a son of David in the sense that he will rule Israel, and then the world, as a political and military tyrant. The scribes use psalm 110 to support this vision of the Messiah. In typical fashion, Jesus turns the scripture against them.
“Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’
David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”
Jesus’ claim is that the Messiah will be greater than David. David himself calls the Messiah “Lord.” If a son inherits the traits of his father, the Messiah will not be a son of David. The Messiah is someone entirely different. Do not expect another king like David.
This does not mean that Jesus does not fulfill the scriptures. It means that he fulfills them in an entirely new and unexpected way. Jesus will sit in the greatest seat, the one at the right hand of God, but few will notice it. His seat will be the cross.
From the cross, Jesus’ enemies are put under his feet.
Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the Temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’(15:29-30)
The word used for “come down” in this verse is καταβαίνω. Κατα means “down” and βαίνω is a verb for “go” or “step.” It is closely related to the word for foot, βάσις. If Mark wished to convey a simple going down he could have used κατέρχομαι which has no relation to feet or the act of stepping. Through this choice of καταβαίνω, Mark suggests that Jesus was asked to step down from his cross by his enemies. The mocking voices come from below Jesus’ feet. The rulers of Israel have truly seen “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power”(14:62).
In choosing the lowest seat in the world, the seat reserved for slaves and criminals, Jesus has chosen the greatest seat in the Kingdom of God. Taking up one’s cross and following Jesus means sitting in the worst seat.