James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him,
"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"
They answered him, "Grant that in your glory
we may sit one at your right and the other at your left."
Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the cup that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
They said to him, "We can."
Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink,
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
"You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Because the Catholic Lectionary does not include every episode or passage from the four Gospels, there are times when it is helpful to look at a Bible or a commentary to see the setting of the Sunday reading, for example. Thus, it is worth noting that the episode for this coming weekend’s liturgy is set directly after the third prediction by Jesus of his upcoming arrest, trial, and death; in addition, Mark, like Luke, adds a further dimension that Jesus had made up his mind (or “set his face” as Luke puts it) to go to Jerusalem for the final showdown with those who are actively dismantling his mission on behalf of the Kingdom of God.
If Jesus is under assault, his disciples are blissfully unaware of it. Sunday’s Gospel is a powerful argument that the Twelve are actually regressing in their faith journey. For the request of James and John that opens the Sunday Gospel occurs after the disciples have heard Jesus’ prediction not once but three times! James and John sound like the farmer’s two sons standing at the bed of their sick father. “When you kick off, pa, which one of us gets the new tractor?”
I returned to Father Harrington’s analysis in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (618-19), who notes that the insensitivity to and ignorance of James and John is particularly galling, since Peter, James and John had formed something of an inner circle, exclusively witnessing certain miracles and even the Transfiguration. James and John, of course, are the notorious boanerges or “sons of thunder” whose impulsive tempers and self-aggrandizing tendencies are something of a trademark of this Gospel. Their behavior here is so outlandish that Matthew, writing later with more hindsight, edits and softens the text to blame the parents, so to speak, as he writes that it was actually James’ and John’s mother who made the request for seats at the right hand. (Matthew 20:20)
The curious thing about the demand—and that’s what it was—of the boanerges is that their language indicates their correct literal hearing of Jesus’ predictions. Jesus had in fact indicated he would rise on the third day after his passion and pass into glory. James and John thus heard the bad with the good, but proceed to express concern about their share of the glory without a glimmer of concern about their participation in the bad. In short, they heard what they wished to hear, the perennial danger for all of us who take up the Gospel today.
Father Harrington divides Sunday’s reading into three distinct units: (1) a place in the kingdom demands suffering; (2) it is not Jesus’ prerogative to determine status in the coming Kingdom, and (3) leadership in Jesus’ community demands service. The first point seems historically consistent with the hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel was originally addressed to Christians suffering persecutions in Rome. The second point may be scandalous to a few, but the Synoptic Gospels are clear in holding that, as a human being, Jesus lived within the limitations of space and time and demonstrated typical human experiences such as uncertainty of the future. To this we must add that it is typical in Mark’s Gospel for Jesus to always manifest subservience to the will of his Father. Even if Jesus did enjoy the right of assigning heavenly accommodations, he would never claim this divine prerogative in the presence of his disciples at the expense of his Father’s glory.
The third point is one of the great moral teachings of the entire New Testament: that “greatness” comes only from humility. The choice of Greek wording is critical. In verse 43 Jesus contrasts greatness with service, or literally, whoever would be great must become a diakonos or servant. We get our word “deacon” from the Greek here; in Acts of the Apostles Luke recounts that the first seven deacons were entrusted by the Apostles with basic church community service, such as bringing bread to widows. Jesus proceeds further with the thought, observing that whoever would be first would be the doulos or slave of all.
As Roman Catholics we belong to a sacramental church: the tangible realities of things are of equal importance as the idea of things. Even in the Apostolic times there were heretical concepts to the effect that one could be saved by “secret knowledge” (the Gnostics, for example.) Sunday’s Gospel counters such tendencies with its emphasis upon the observable and tangible: real suffering attends discipleship, waiting on tables constitutes fidelity. A close reading of the texts indicates that Jesus was not denying the need for leaders, teachers, and bearers of authority. What he was looking for was the proper attitude of leaders: that they see positions of authority as opportunities of service.
Authority is not always exercised wisely or with humility, and this is particularly troublesome when such abuse of power occurs in the Church. This morning on my PEW news service I came across a story from the Washington Post about Michael Keating, age 10. He is unable to eat or speak or undertake normal physical functioning due to severe cerebral palsy. You have all seen Michael even if you do not recognize his name. At great inconvenience his family brought him to see Pope Francis’ motorcade in Philadelphia. When the Pope noticed him in his apparatus, he had his driver stop. Francis went to the boy, took his face in his hands, and kissed him.
The Post, in its best Woodward and Bernstein tradition, decided to do a profile of the family. I found it to be a remarkably inspiring story, but there was one episode involving the Church that absolutely strained credulity. When Michael was seven, his parents presented him to their local parish for his First Communion. They were informed by the pastor that because Michael could not speak and make his first confession, he could not receive the Eucharist. (If you need a minute or two to absorb this, so did I.) I cannot pretend to know what goes on in the mind of this pastor who believes his canonical entitlements give him the right to act in such a scandalous manner, but it is a sad truth that the Church is peopled by many leaders who would not understand Sunday’s Gospel if they fell over it in the parking lot. By the good grace of God another pastor in the area, Father Michael J. Fitzpatrick of West Brandywine, PA, welcomed the family and made the appropriate adjustments so that Michael could receive his First Communion…and indeed young Michael receives with his family every week through his feeding syringe.
Maybe Father Fitzpatrick should preach this weekend to the Bishops at the Synod about humility and family life.