Jesus has already told his disciples about his coming suffering in disgrace and death on three different occasions; each time they fail to understand. They are preoccupied with their own status in the coming kingdom. Here we have their reaction after his third prediction of his passion, and in his response to them he not only mentions his fate again but, for the first time, he reveals his understanding of this fate which is his Father's will for him.
We must note carefully that he does so in the context of his teaching that true greatness lies not in having a position of authority over others, but in being the slave of all, a theme that has dominated all Jesus's teaching about discipleship in this section of the Gospel. And as a final clinching argument, Jesus adduces himself as an example in his role as Son of Man.
In the Book of Daniel the Son of Man is depicted as a glorious figure coming in the crowds of heaven: 'To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him' (7:14). But Jesus stands this in its head: 'The Son of man,' he says 'did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So the purpose of Jesus's suffering is that his life should be a ransom for many. 'Ransom', 'redemption', the Greek word can be translated in either way. We still speak of 'redeeming' a watch from the pawn-broker. The words come from the use of the market place and in this use they both imply the paying of a price to somebody; in ancient time they were mostly used in connection with the buying back of slaves and the ransom of captives.
But the Old Testament frequently used the word redeem in a metaphorical sense to refer to Gods act in liberating his people from Egypt - and God certainly did not achieve this by making any payment to Pharaoh. Again the Bible speaks of God ransoming his people from Babylon where they were exiled, and he certainly did not pay anything to the Persian King. So when Jesus says his life will be given as a ransom for many there is no reason for us to think that he is talking about a payment of some debt to anybody. He means that his life, given in loving service, will be the means of setting people free.
Who is to be set free? 'Many': not, as we might think, in the sense of 'many but not all,' but in the sense of 'the many', 'the multitude'; it was a term used to designate the people of Israel. The community of Qumran, which saw itself as the true Israel, called itself 'the many', and Jesus, no doubt, uses the word to refer to the Israel renewed through his service. At the Last Supper he will use it with the same meaning when he says: 'This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.' That is why, in the Eucharistic prayer it is now translated 'for all'. So when here he speaks of giving his life for the many he evokes the idea of a new people of God to be created and formed as a result of his life and death.
It is important for us to remember the context of these words of Jesus. He spoke these words in the context of his teaching on the service of others. What Jesus wants to inculcate in his disciples, through his own example, is the realisation that true glory comes through faithful and loving service of others, even if such service leads to a cruel death, as it says in the Epistle to Titus: 'He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.'