Two disciples from Jesus’ inner circle make a request that irritates the others but allows Him to reveal one of His kingdom’s greatest mysteries. What is it?
Gospel (Read Mk 10:35-45)
St. Mark tells us about a bold moment when James and John (two of Jesus’ closest friends, the other being Peter) ask “that in Your glory, we may sit one at Your right and the other at Your left.” Recall that in St. Matthew’s Gospel, their mother was with them, too (see Mt 20:20). It is interesting to watch Jesus respond to this request. First, He says, “You don’t know what you are asking.” Yet, surely James and John believe they do. Jesus asks of them: “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” No hesitation! They immediately answer, “We can.”
We need to understand that Jesus’ reference to drinking “the cup” is Old Testament imagery depicting the misery God compels the unfaithful to drink (see Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15). The “baptism” refers not to His water baptism (which had already happened) but to His immersion in trial and suffering. Jesus is describing for them the great battle that lies ahead for Him. By their question, we have some understanding of what kind of kingdom they think He is about to establish. Any good revolutionary is very ready to engage the battle that will usher in a new regime; James and John quickly count themselves prepared. Jesus accepts their profession of readiness, confirms it, and then shows how they really do not know what they are asking.
It is true, Jesus tells them, that as His disciples they will enter into great suffering, just as He did. As it turned out, James was the first apostle to be martyred (see Acts 12:2), and John lived in exile (see Rev 1:9). However, here Jesus explains to them that greatness in His kingdom is received, not earned. Although the disciples boldly asserted themselves in their request for choice seats in the kingdom, Jesus Himself defers to the Father. In the glory of Jesus’ kingdom, it is “not my will but Thine be done.” Jesus knows this truth and lived it. Now, He uses a somewhat obnoxious moment (“when the ten heard this, they became indignant”) to teach His disciples to know and live it, too.
Using man’s natural desire for greatness and the power that goes with it, which is implicit in the request by James and John, Jesus establishes the difference between the world’s way and the way of His kingdom: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant…the slave of all.” We can imagine how shocking this must have been to the two disciples who had tried to position themselves in advance for greatness. Then, Jesus gives them Himself as the living example of His words: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” The disciples could not have fully understood the meaning of this at the time, before the dying and rising of Jesus. In time, they would learn, and the sons of Zebedee would one day choose this path of humility, too.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help those who lead the Church be willing to find greatness in being servants of all.
First Reading (Read Isa 53:10-11)
Jesus knew that He was the “Suffering Servant” described by Isaiah, the prophet, in these verses. When He spoke to James and John of the “cup” and the “baptism” that lay ahead of Him, He was describing His suffering “as an offering for sin.” They were interested in their own greatness, even at the cost of affliction. Jesus, however, was willing to undergo His crushing agony so that “the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through Him.” Jesus was not seeking His own power; He came “not to be served but to serve.” His life was a ransom for all our pride and arrogance, all our self-promotion and thirst for control. Isaiah prophesied well: “Their guilt He shall bear.”
St. James and St. John know that now, and so do we.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, thank You for paying the price for our rebellious insistence on our own greatness.
Psalm (Read Ps 33:4-5, 18-20, 22)
The psalmist reminds us “the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear Him, upon those who hope for His kindness.” What a difference there is between hoping for God’s kindness and demanding it. It is essential that disciples of Jesus learn this distinction. It is the lesson Jesus began teaching James and John in our Gospel. It is a lesson the psalmist can teach us today, too, as he says, “Our soul waits for the Lord.” These words put us in a posture of humility. Our refrain keeps us there:“Lord, let Your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in You.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Heb 4:14-16)
There is great comfort for us today in this reading. All of us struggle with the thirst for glory, the desire to be recognized as “the best,” and the reluctance to find greatness in losing ourselves as we serve others. Happily, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been similarly tested…yet without sin.” Recall Jesus in the wilderness. In many ways, Satan worked hard to tempt Jesus to take the world’s path to greatness and renounce the way of suffering. Jesus faced this temptation down. He fully understands how hard it is for us to follow Him in this. However, because He defeated Satan and “passed through the heavens” to God’s right hand, we can “hold fast to our confession” (the profession of our faith in Him). When we feel our weakness, we can “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
In our Gospel, we saw misplaced human confidence. In Hebrews, we learn how to be confident in the right way.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I need Your mercy and grace to choose self-denial today. Every hour brings temptation to skirt the way of suffering.