Let’s be honest. It is easy for us to criticize John and James for the request they make of Jesus this morning. How dare they be so bold to ask for places at his right and left? These two are part of the inner circle of the twelve along with Peter. But how often do we approach Jesus in prayer or our thoughts and lay out our self-centered demands rather than thinking and asking about his plans for us?
Before this request of James and John, Jesus has again made it clear that he is on a journey to Jerusalem. What awaits him is betrayal, a handover to religious then foreign powers, a cruel and violent death and then and only then after a sure death, resurrection. This is the third time in the gospel that Jesus has made it clear what is in store for him. Or put it in other terms: Jesus has made it clear what his Father’s plan is for his Son. It is also the third time that the disciples don’t seem to understand the implications of what Jesus is saying. A few weeks ago, we heard them arguing about who among them was the greatest. Today, two of the intimate circle are asking for seats of glory and honor. In reality it has to do with authority and power. If you sit next to the king, then you share his authority. They want the best seats in the glory time! They imagine Jesus to be about power and authority. They see Jesus as one who is in command. That is the aura they too want to bask and bathe in.
Jesus’ response is rather mild considering the frustration he must feel at their inability or their unwillingness to understand what he is about. He doesn’t really rebuke. His response is about a cup and a baptism. That, he says, is what he can offer them. In the Old Testament, cup is a rich but ambivalent symbol. It can mean blessings, joy and communion. Think of Psalm 23 with its table and overflowing cup. But it also refers to the cup of punishment and suffering. Think of the expulsion and exile of the community from their Land due to their failure to keep the covenant. They have to drink the cup of suffering. There is no doubt that Jesus is referring to the cup of his passion. In his passion he will drink the suffering of humankind, what Isaiah calls today bearing the guilt of the community, carrying our infirmities, bearing our sins, shouldering our weakness, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it.
The baptism of which Jesus speaks is another image of his walking into death. The original meaning of baptism is to be immersed in water. Jesus will be immersed in suffering; he will enter the whole process of dying, from betrayal, to being handed over, to an execution as a criminal and a form of death reserved for criminals and slaves. In other words, he will be immersed in violence; he will not be in control; instead he will be mocked for the good he has done and promised. All the while, he will be innocent.
Before we jump to criticize James and John, we might ask ourselves, what we have done with our baptismal commitment. We were told that in our baptism we died with Christ and only then could we talk about rising with him. But how are we doing with this dying with Christ. We renounced the ways of the world, the ways of Satan. But have we said the words but not changed our way of thinking and consequently our behavior?
Each Eucharist has a cup at its heart. We hear Jesus words again, the cup of my blood poured out for you and for all the others around you. Poured out, he says, so that the stronghold of sin may be broken. We drink that cup and so accept what Jesus offers the two disciples, the cup of his passion. But if we accept to hold and drink the cup, we are also accepting that the suffering of our lives is brought into the suffering of Christ so that he can bring healing and reconciliation to it. When we accept the cup, we are committing ourselves again to a way of life that culminates in a form of pouring out our lives for others as Jesus did. Jesus makes it clear that his willingness to die is in fact a willingness to pour out himself for us who are weak, broken and bound and determined to be focused on self. Can we drink from the cup and then walk away as if nothing has happened?
What about the other ten? Be assured they were not indignant at James and John because they were missing Jesus’ point. They were angry that the two of them had beaten them to making the request for sharing in power and glory. They were angry because it meant that they would not be sharers in authority and power over others. The motive was ambition and competition. We cannot have someone over us. As Jesus makes clear in his teaching, they were thinking like the world thinks and the world thinks in terms of ambition, competition and authority over others. These become the motive for getting ahead, usually by walking on and over others. That is the paradigm Jesus sees as operative in the world.
Jesus teaches us in his response. This is not the way it is to be among you, among those who follow me and the way of the cross. Instead, the foundation of your lives together is to be a self-sacrificing service that reflects the self-sacrificing love and service of Jesus. And that, Jesus says, is what it means to be great. Remember, the two wanted to be great sitting next to Jesus. But Jesus’ way of greatness is a new model. At the heart of greatness is service; being first means being for others. It is not power over, it is power for. It is not being in control or having authority over; it is how can I be of service, how can I carry your infirmity, how can I share your weakness so that your burden is lightened? That is greatness in the Kingdom. That is the greatness that the heavenly Father asks of his son. To give his life so that others can be free. This is the greatness that Jesus asks of those who follow him. This is the greatness that will come from sharing the cup and baptism of Jesus. Service is what makes one great in God’s eyes.
Let’s go back to the initial demand of the two: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Should it not be “Teacher, we want to do for you and for the many others whatever you ask of us?”
Prior, Fr. Joel Macul, OSB