More than once Christ was misunderstood by those who surrounded Him, even His closest followers. This week’s Gospel shows the depth of James’ and John’s misunderstanding, and the lengths to which Jesus went in order to correct that misunderstanding.
There is no doubt that James and John considered Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah. They would not have made their bold request (“Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left”) if they did not think Jesus was the promised Savior. Yet they could only think of a glorious Messiah; the idea that Jesus would have to suffer and die was incomprehensible to them (although Jesus had plainly spoken of His coming death on several previous occasions). The eyes of James and John were filled with visions of glory, power and prestige. Their closeness to Jesus having been taken into His inner circle and confidence many times probably fed their ambitions.
Instead of granting their request, however, Jesus surprises them by setting forth a different standard for greatness in His kingdom. “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” In the Christian community, greatness is measured by how much one shares in the work, fortunes and sacrifice of Christ Himself. The “cup” had become, by this time, a biblical symbol of great suffering and tragic fate. “Baptism” here refers not to the sacrament, but to the experience of being submerged in death, an experience that Christ underwent on the Cross. Thus, instead of glory, Jesus is telling His disciples that without a cross there can never be a crown. The standard of greatness in the Kingdom of God is always the standard of the Cross, the standard of a life poured out in loving service.
This episode provided Jesus the opportunity to elaborate on the meaning of rule and leadership in the Church. In the kingdoms of the world, the measure of greatness was power and exercise of control over others. The Roman emperor, Galba, once said that now that he was emperor he could do what he liked and do it to anyone. Christ, on the other hand, taught His disciples that greatness consisted not in reducing other persons to one’s service, but in reducing oneself to the service of others. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” The real question we should ask of ourselves is not, “What can I get?” but rather, “What can I give?”
To make the point even clearer, Jesus points to Himself as the model for Christian life. With His divine power, the Lord could have arranged life entirely to suit Himself. He could have extracted obedience, love and worship from everyone with a mere thought. Yet, He explains His Person and His mission with the words, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Lordship and Messiahship of Jesus is expressed in the supreme service of giving His life, of drinking the cup of suffering and submitting to the baptism of the Cross.
What Jesus says of Himself applies also to all who seek to follow Him as disciples. Each one of us is called to a life of generous service, of accepting the Cross, of living in communion with the Messiah who suffered for the sake of us all. In this lies our glory, our greatness, and also our hope.
Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)