21 PENTECOST, PROPER XXIV - B - 15 MARK 10. 35-45
Last week’s gospel ended with Jesus promising his disciples that because they had willingly left all and followed him their reward was assured. What follows in Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ third prediction of his death in Jerusalem as He and his disciples continue the journey toward the Holy City and the cross.
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and scourge him, and spit on him, and kill him. And the third day he will rise again.”
Instead of responding to what Jesus says, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask that they might sit, one at his right hand, and the other at his left, when He comes into His glory. Jesus’ initial response is “you do not know what you are asking for.” Then he answers their question with a question probing their faith: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am about to be baptized with?”
And of course they say “yes” not knowing what they are agreeing to for their focus is on their own selfish goal. But by the same token they were right, even though James and John did not know what they were asking for or saying “yes” to. Christ calls his crucifixion a “cup” because he drank it willingly ( Heb 12.2). His death is a baptism because he was completely immersed in it, and yet it cleansed the world.
When Jesus “sits in his glory,” with one at his right and one at his left, it will be on the cross. The brother’s quest for temporal power and glory is unfitting for a disciple and shows an earthly misunderstanding of the kingdom of God. Christ’s prophecy of James and John participating in the same cup and baptism shows the life of persecution and martyrdom they would lead after Pentecost.
But for now, Jesus is determined to continue the journey to Jerusalem a path that will take him to Calvary. It is not taking him by surprise. It is part of his divine vocation. He sees himself fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah’s “suffering servant” in today’s first lesson. But the minds and the hearts of his disciples are elsewhere.
This is the third time Jesus has warned his disciples about what is going to happened to him. On two previous occasions, as well as this one, Jesus speaks in clear and direct terms about the suffering that lay ahead of him. In each case his disciples turn a deaf ear. Jesus responds with an attempt to teach them that the kingdom of God comes not through power as the world knows it, but through sacrificial love.
The reason James and John misunderstood Jesus is exactly the same as the reason why many subsequent thinkers, down to the present age, are desperate to find a way of having Jesus without having the cross. The cross calls into question all human pride and glory.
But they were on the other side of the cross. They had not received the full gift of Christ’s ransom. It would only be after they had made the passage through Good Friday to Easter, that they would be prepared to drink the cup of suffering for others, and they did.
But for the moment another lesson is called for concerning the meaning of discipleship. Discipleship does not consist of hierarchical privileges, here or hereafter, as one’s reward, but to ministry and service. Jesus illustrates his meaning by first contrasting the ideals of the kingdom of God with those of the great empire in which they lived where autocratic power was wielded and where the men of the type of Caesar held sway, then to himself.
“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. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Willingness to suffer and to engage in sacrificial service, not ambition for high places, are the essentials for the sons of the kingdom. Jesus exemplified service in all that He said and did up to and including his death on the cross. These lessons about discipleship, taught on the road to Jerusalem, are lessons we all need to take to heart if we truly wish to serve Him by serving others in His name.
Putting them into practice will identify us as belonging to Him, as it eventually did for James and John and the rest. For our world today, as then, remains bent on power, prestige, and wealth as the ultimate human goals. The world misunderstood Him and the concept of the kingdom of God he brought, then, and for the most part, it misunderstands Him now.
Today’s lesson is one of sacrificial love. The cross is God’s sign of that. God’s kingdom is not one of power as the world understands it. For the cross turns our earthly understanding of power and glory upside down and inside out. No, the power of the kingdom is based on sacrificial love, something the world does not understand, and will never understand.
As modern day disciples we may not be called to be martyrs in the traditional sense, that is, actually giving up our lives for the sake of the gospel as did James, and the rest of the disciples, perhaps even Blessed John himself. But we will be called upon to give of ourselves, to sacrifice our earthly desires, our ambitions and our pride; literally to die to self in order that we might live to Him who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all.
There is no greater privilege or reward in this life than to be called to ministry and service as “servi servorum Dei.” One of the paradoxes of the kingdom is that God chooses men for great service, but men so chosen must show themselves fit to be chosen. AMEN+