by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin.” Hebrews 4, 14-16

“You know that those who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Mark 10, 35-45

Just a few Sundays ago (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time), the gospel reading (Mark 9, 30-37) told of how Jesus deflated the ambitions of his apostles after he heard them debating among themselves about who was the most important. He stopped them in their tracks by stating: “If anyone wishes to be first, he must make himself last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9, 35). In this Sunday’s gospel, we hear how at least two of the apostles were such slow learners that Jesus was forced to repeat and underline the same message. Having failed to grasp Jesus’ call to servant leadership, James and John approached Jesus with a request for positions of power when Jesus finally made it to the top. They had approached Jesus as they imagined one would approach rulers in the political world of power and status. It seems, too, that they were expecting a short-cut to prominence and power. Being good friends with the boss would surely bring some rewards! Having failed to comprehend the significance of the references that Jesus had made to how he would be condemned by his own religious leaders and handed over to foreigners for execution, they were unable to understand the real cost of discipleship. The prospect of blood, sweat, tears and persecution was simply not on their agenda. However, Jesus smartly disabused them, and called them, yet again, to servant leadership.

In this context, I am reminded of a story told by well-known writer and motivational speaker, “Zig” Zigler. He tells of a railway track maintenance crew engaged in laying new tracks in the early 1950’s: One morning, as the men were working away with sledge hammers and rivets, a train approached from down the track and pulled off on a side rail. At the back of the train was a beautiful, luxury carriage. A window opened on it and a man poked his head out and shouted: “Dave Anderson, is that you?”

Suddenly the men stopped, and one of the older workers shouted back “Yes Jim, it’s me!” Again came the voice from inside the carriage: “Come on up here and let’s chat for a while”

So, Dave put down his hammer, stopped what he’d been doing and joined Jim in his private rail car. After about an hour, Dave Anderson climbed down from the carriage, picked up his hammer again and the workers watched as the train pulled away. The men on the maintenance crew stared at Dave in disbelief, and one man exclaimed, “That was Jim Murphy, the president of the rail company.”

“Yes, it was.” said Anderson. “Jim and I both were hired on the same day 25 years ago. We’ve been friends ever since.” Stunned by his statement, another worker asked: “If you both started on the same day 25 years ago, how is it that he’s the president of the railway company and you’re still out here swinging hammers?” “Well, it’s quite simple”, Dave explained. “All those years ago I went to work for $1.75 an hour. Jim Murphy went to work for the rail company.”

Today’s gospel is not just a story about the ambitions of James and John. Its message is pointed directly at us. It asks us to examine our motives for daring to call ourselves Catholics or Christians. While we were initiated into the Christian community at baptism, when did we commit ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as his disciples? Are we, like the rich young man of last week’s gospel, motivated by self-interest: inheriting eternal life? What part does servant leadership play in our lives? To what extent are we actively involved in working with others in our church community to reach out to the poor and needy, to welcome refugees, to treat others with compassion, sensitivity and respect? Aren’t those activities part of building the kingdom of God?

So, we are being challenged today to reflect on our motivation for calling ourselves card-carrying Catholics or Christians. As the same “Zig” Zigler reminded an audience once, motivation is something that has to be renewed again and again: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Today’s second reading from Hebrews carries a heart-warming reminder that, in the person of Jesus, we have a living expression of God’s solidarity with us: one who feels sympathy for us in our weaknesses, one who was tempted in every way that we are. One of the implications of Jesus’ being fully human is that he had to grow into understanding the value and wisdom of the very notion of leader-as-servant. Having reached that understanding, he then had to deal with the ambitions of close friends like James and John, with their desire for prestige and power.

For a second consecutive Sunday there is a progression in the way in which Mark shapes his text. We are first told that greatness consists in serving others. Then we are told that the summit of greatness belongs to the leader who serves the needs of all. It’s not overly difficult to set aside self interest in order to reach out to a select group of those with whom we are comfortable. But that’s a long way from assuming responsibility for everyone, especially when leaders know that they can’t please everyone all of the time. They know that in trying to work for the common good they will have to deal with the disgruntled, with all kinds of protestors and with all those who choose the way of non-co-operation. So, Jesus is clearly correct in pointing out to James and John that anyone who dares to take on the role of leadership that involves serving all is bound to attract criticism, opposition, threat and even physical and emotional pain. It’s no wonder that his words to James and John, in the hearing of the other apostles, were coloured by his third reference to how his own servant leadership would not only attract critics but would lead to his condemnation and death at the hands of religious and political leaders whose power base was threatened by his teaching. In one way or another, we all have a responsibility to lead. Today we are asked if we prepared to pay the cost?