Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and asked: “Grant that, in your glory, we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said to them: “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptised in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” “Of course,” they said. “Why not?”  Mark 10, 35-45

We can all hear today’s gospel and end up siding with the other ten Apostles who were furious with James and John for having the effrontery to ask Jesus for the two top jobs when he “came into his glory”. They wanted some of the status and power that they imagined Jesus would have when he was eventually accepted as the Messiah. However, if the truth be known, the ten were more than likely upset with the two brothers because they got in first. After all, they had already had an argument about who among them was the best and brightest (Mark 9, 33-35).

In the verses leading into today’s gospel-reading, Mark had recorded how Jesus had spoken to the Twelve for a third time about his impending death at the hands of those who wanted to be rid of him (Mark 10, 32-34). While Mark had already noted that some of the larger group of disciples were apprehensive about following Jesus to Jerusalem, the Twelve seemed to take Jesus’ prediction of his death with a grain of salt. Seemingly it was as significant as the latest weather report, if we go by the fact that James and John raced to catch up with Jesus with their request that was all about self-interest. I can well imagine the depth of frustration Jesus must have felt, asking himself: “Will this lot ever grasp what I’m trying to tell them? When will the penny drop?” Yet he still responded to them respectfully, once again pointing out that service of others was the essence of true discipleship.

But then, I am prompted to ask myself: “Am I any different from James, John and the other ten?” It is one thing to stand of the sidelines of today’s gospel-reading, looking in at the Apostles and criticising their insensitivity and dull-wittedness. It’s quite another thing to become a participant in this gospel episode, to look into the mirror of this gospel-reading and assess where I stand in it. If you’re like me, you probably feel affirmed when the efforts you make to serve others are recognised and appreciated. Despite our protestations to the contrary, deep down we like the recognition we receive. And that recognition encourages us to continue our efforts.

But how much of each day do I spend without any conscious reference to Jesus, without thinking that, as a disciple of Jesus, I have committed myself to a life of selfless service of others, especially the needy and forgotten? Yet, repeatedly, Mark draws the attention of his audience to the fact that discipleship is a commitment to walking in the footsteps of a Jesus Christ who was crucified as a criminal. Ironically, it was two thieves who came to occupy positions on the right and left of Jesus at his crucifixion. While John remained at the side of Jesus’ mother, James was nowhere to be seen. Mark is, consequently, at his sarcastic best, when, in retrospect, he attributes to James and John an unqualified answer to Jesus’ question: “Can you drink the cup I shall drink or be baptised in the same bath of pain as I?” “We can” was their unhesitating response. And we know that their assurance came to nothing.

There is something in us all that seems to want to dodge the reality of a Jesus who is vulnerable. The members of Mark’s community were discomforted by that reality, and Christians through the ages have echoed that discomfort. Yet Mark has presented a Jesus who had come to see that his execution was inevitable. Having predicted his death three times, having shattered his followers’ ambitions for greatness based on status and power, having twice told them that those wanting to be first will be last and that to save one’s life, one must lose it, Jesus had to cope with the fact that those closest to him had failed to grasp his message. Had James and John understood him, they would not have dared to make their request for special treatment. In a final attempt to get his followers on the same page, Mark had Jesus spell out his mission more clearly than ever: “The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve. – to give his life in ransom for the many” (Mark 10, 45). This is the centrepiece, the foundation of Mark’s Gospel.

There are clear implications in this for all of us who dare to acknowledge that we are followers or disciples of Jesus, irrespective of whether we accept roles and responsibilities in civil or church contexts or both, in professions or trades or volunteer organisations. The Gospel invites us to imitate Jesus in spending ourselves in service to others and for the good of all. A role in leadership or the title of Brother, Sister or Father does not give us privilege or entitlement to be put on a metaphorical pedestal for the admiration or adulation of others. There ought be no reserved places in churches for people of title and prestige, just as there are no reserved seats in the kingdom of God.

Whenever we gather in our churches to pray, to listen, to reflect and to worship, we are actually gathering to celebrate what God has done for us and our world in and through the person of Jesus. In response, we set out to follow Jesus by living, loving and forgiving as he did. That we fall short should come as no surprise, for we are not made of stainless steel. We carry the limitations of being human, together with the assurance that God’s Spirit will continue to work through our fragility. Today’s gospel-reading brings us the reminder from Jesus that what really matters is not where we sit, but, rather, how we serve.