Historical Culture Context
The group that Jesus gathered around himself is technically called a faction. Members of such a group each have a direct, important, and relatively strong relationship with the leader but very little knowledge of or relationship with each other.
In today’s story, James and John, two blood relatives, do something very normal and customary in this culture within factions. They jockey for a higher position of honor in the group and care nothing about the others. When Jesus receives his full measure of honor, these two brothers want a share in it by gaining the most prestigious positions next to him. In this culture, everything is always about honor.
Each group member already possesses a degree of honor that derives from birth. Nothing can be added to or subtracted from that honor. Thus, Jesus from Nazareth is an artisan’s son. Simon and Andrew are sons of Jonah, as James and John are sons of Zebedee.
But honor can also be achieved, most often through honor contests known as “challenge and riposte.” One person asks questions of another in hopes of shaming him and thereby increasing his own honor. The request of James and John is still another way of achieving honor: personal effort. Here, the effort is little more than the request for a favor.
Since Jesus is the acknowledged leader of this group, he can do a favor for individual members and grant them privileges that would make them stand out in relationship to others. Of course, the others are incensed to learn of this move and express indignation (Mk 10:41).
Instead of granting the favor, Jesus asks if the brothers “can drink the cup” that he drinks which constitutes his claim to achieved honor. Like all metaphors, this one, too, developed from a real-life custom.
In Mediterranean culture, the head of the family fills the cups of all at table. Each one is expected to accept and drink what the head of the family has given.
Since all theology is based on analogy, and the behavior of God is assumed to be like the behavior of human beings in a given culture, the cup came to represent the lot in life which God has assigned for each person (see Ps 11:6; 16:5; 23:5; etc.).
If Jesus accepts his assigned lot, he will attain the honor determined by God (Mk 14:36). The brothers impetuously affirm that they can indeed accept and fulfill the same lot assigned to Jesus.
At this point, Jesus reminds them that he is a broker in the kingdom and not its patron. Jesus can put others in touch with God the patron, but it is God alone who determines each person’s lot and deserved honor.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University