29th Sunday of Ordinary time, 10-21-2018
Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
We left Jesus last week saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Then, for the third time, Jesus predicts his coming death. He says, “…the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests…and will (be) condemned to death…they will mock him and scourge Him and spit on Him and kill Him. And on the third day He will rise again.”
If you remember, the first time (8:31) Jesus said this, Peter scolded Jesus for saying such a thing. Jesus compared him to Satan, and accused Peter of tempting him as Satan did in the desert. The second time (9:31), everyone was afraid to ask any questions. Now (10: 32), James and John oddly choose to ask Jesus for a favor immediately after Jesus proclaims his coming death the 3rd time. It’s more like a demand that Jesus do “whatever they ask”. Have John and James not paid attention to his teaching about the first being last, and the last first?
So what do they want? What immediately comes to mind is power, prestige, to be “great”. The 1st Nicene Council was in 325, after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire. The historical records include who sat on the right and the left of the Emperor Constantine. They were highly contested places to sit, won by strong arm political maneuvering – and you can be assured the man who sat on the right of the Emperor was the one who promoted the winning theology which resulted in the first Canon Laws of the Church. Were James and John doing some serious political moves to be leaders when the time came for Jesus to defeat Rome and take over the government? Seems like a timely passage to be reading just before a hotly contested election, doesn’t it?
Jesus warns them that they don’t understand the enormity of their request. Yet they agree to drink the cup of suffering, and to be submerged in the baptism of death. And of course, word leaks out about their demands, and anger and jealousy erupt among the rest of the apostles, so much so that Jesus must sit them down and straighten them out.
Jesus does not deny that there is rank in the Kingdom of God. But it is not a result of shrewd political maneuvers. Jesus reminds the apostles of their Roman Conquerors, and how they chose leaders. It was a corrupt system, and the Jews were subject to men who were anxious to “lord it over” them. The apostles are close to trying to do the same thing. It is always interesting, and usually depressing, when there is a shift of political power. Once people gain power, they tend to try to suppress other people. Power is a breeding ground for unrestrained ambition and jealousy.
Or perhaps I am terribly wrong about James and John. I was reading an article by Eleonore Stump, Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University. She said her son-in-law read this Gospel and immediately understood it to mean something other than what we usually think. He said, that after Jesus had announced his coming death three times, James and John understood he meant it. Perhaps they were ready to be on the right and left of Jesus when he was crucified, which might account for the odd time they approached him. But God had already chosen those at the right and left of Jesus – two unknown, nameless, lowly criminals were on his right and his left. One of them did, in fact, follow Jesus to eternal life. Perhaps the other apostles misinterpreted the request made by James and John, seeing it all through a lens of their own ambition, as people traditionally do when reading this.
Jesus offers another way to live, another way to become great, turning the entire measure of greatness around and flipping the scale of greatness upside down. “Whoever”, he says, “desire to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever desires to be first shall be slave of all”. Servant! Slave! Is he telling us to become great by being the lowest of the social order? Inwardly, we wince. “No one could do that”, we think. Jesus hears our doubt. He responds, “For even (I) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give (my) life as a ransom for the many.” It is so counter to our culture it takes our breath away, and we feel a dark urge to not take it too seriously.
Our reading from Hebrew offers us reassurance that Jesus is in fact serious and does understand our weaknesses, as he too was subjected to temptation. So we may run to Jesus with confidence, for only in his perfect power, we will receive mercy and grace, and find the true greatness of service to each other.