As we know, James and John (along with Peter) were the disciples who were closest to Jesus – often called Jesus’ “inner circle” in the sense that several times the scriptures describe events in which James and John were alone with Jesus and witnessed things that the other disciples were not privileged to see. Today’s Gospel passage takes place right after the 3rd time that Jesus predicts his passion and death. Jesus and the disciples are on the way up to Jerusalem and Jesus takes them aside, and with more explicit detail than the first two predictions, Jesus speaks about the suffering he will endure, his death, and resurrection. As in the 1st two predictions, the disciples react badly. Either they choose to ignore the serious nature of what Jesus has just said or they are so self-absorbed that they are oblivious to what Jesus is trying to tell them. This seems to be the case with James and John. They seem to be counting on their special status among the Twelve to make such a bold, open-ended request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” They are confident that Jesus can do anything, but they are being presumptuous. This ploy to secure the top two posts in the Kingdom – to sit at Jesus’ right and left when Jesus comes in glory – does not go unnoticed by the other disciples. They become indignant at James and John. The other disciples are mad, perhaps envious that these two brothers might get ahead of them with their gambit for power and prestige. It would be unfair to give them such authority. Perhaps they are afraid of how they will exercise it. The perception of favoritism leads to hard feelings and divisions within the community. Their indignation indicates a worldly view of the kingdom. So Jesus, once again, uses this misunderstanding as a teaching opportunity. In the Kingdom of God, the path to glory comes through sacrifice and service. James and John are eager to follow Jesus and to be near to Jesus, but they don’t know what they are asking. The way Jesus brings about the Kingdom is through the sacrifice of the cross. At his “coronation” on Calvary, the ones at his right and at his left are two thieves, crucified with him. Jesus asks James and John if they are willing to share in his destiny, symbolized by the cup. Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan was an expression of his solidarity with sinners, and a prefigurement of his death, and rising to new life. Here again he equates baptism with his death. There will be places of authority in the kingdom, and there is nothing wrong with the desire for greatness, but the path to greatness, as he tells the disciples gathered together, is service for the good of all. Authority in the kingdom of God is different than the exercise of authority in the world which makes its power “felt”. The language that Jesus uses to describe himself as coming “to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” invokes the suffering servant of Isaiah who will justify many by the affliction and guilt that he will bear. The offering of one or the sacrifice of one is done for the benefit of all. The individual sacrifice is for the good of the entire community. Our suffering or offering or sacrifice today, united to the offering of Christ, becomes a means of grace for others. In order to enter the kingdom of God, those in authority in the Church and those who seek greatness, are called to share in Christ’s service of self-offering for the good of all. This is very counter-cultural today.
Today, we are called to examine our attitude toward service in the Church. It is very easy to let a consumer mentality – that I’m here to get a service or pay for a service or I’m serving in exchange for something (an advantage of power, prestige, or influence) – shape the way we look at our relationship with the Church. This type of thinking is prevalent in the dominant culture along with a seeing everything in political terms – as a power struggle. It is very common to have certain expectations about what should be ours based on the special status we have enjoyed or the many years of service that we have given to the Church. I have received several demands and threats, some veiled, and others not so veiled, that certain people or groups will leave or won’t serve anymore if certain things are changed going forward. They are trying to make their authority felt. I’ve been told by several people (including some priests) to do the same – to just tell them, “This is the way it is going to be. End of discussion.” But lording one’s power over another – making one’s authority felt – is not the way of Christ. That is not the pastor I intend to be. No one should accept, “Because Father said so” or “because he’s the boss” as a legitimate answer to why we are doing something. That is not a reason I will give because that is not a reasonable approach in the dynamics of the Kingdom of God. We need to ask, myself included, how we can best serve the parish community – the many – by the sacrifices that are asked of us today. Jesus is inviting us to follow him and ask in the choices we make, “How can I best be of service to all?”