James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then 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 hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45.
Today’s Gospel reading follows Jesus’ third announcement that He will go to Jerusalem and meet his death. Mark 10:32-34. As these teachings progress, Jesus and the disciples travel further and further south, toward Jerusalem.
We have the sense that the disciples are really having trouble understanding Jesus’ message. In response to Jesus’ teaching, they want to have some assurance of their primary role in Jesus’ kingdom. In some very real sense, they’re worrying about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You don’t have to spend very long in the Church to see this kind of behavior. They’re concerned about their own position, their own authority and welfare.
Jesus challenges them with a critical question, a question He asks you and me as well: “Can you drink from the cup from which I drink?” In other words, “Just exactly how much are you willing to share in my life?” How much are we willing to let go of our own self-image, our authority, and the stuff that makes up the content of our lives in following Jesus? In last week’s Gospel, we met a rich young man who just couldn’t let go. I wonder if we can. Letting go of our fears may be the hardest part.
Jesus introduces the disciples to the topsy-turvy hierarchy of Christianity. He tells them, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” I wonder how we’d impact the ranks of our church leadership if we used that particular job description. Think of how many terms in our language are associated with primacy: first-place, first-class, and first-rate. The Gospel is about the losers, about becoming a nobody.
In the world, the hierarchical structure achieves its goals through power and domination. In the Kingdom, we must learn to abandon these and accomplish through love, and love alone. Jesus’ call to become servants isn’t necessarily about the tasks we perform; it’s about the kind of people we are to become. Jesus radically redefines “greatness” as servanthood. That’s a hard road. It leads straight to the Cross.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis