Sometimes the Lectionary gives us readings that are a bit too short. Today’s Gospel is an example of this tendency. In the actual Gospel, this passage about James and John asking for privileged places in the Kingdom is immediately preceded by a passage in which Jesus predicts his passion and death for the third time. It is unfortunate that it is omitted from the Gospel set before us today.
If we were to first read this prediction of Jesus’ imminent passion and death and only then the account of how James and John were jockeying for position we would find their squabble better contextualised and we would see things in a slightly different light.
Without the prediction of the passion it seems just like a quarrel over position that any of us might get into. But when we realise the context we see that the Apostles are blatantly ignoring the serious words of Jesus about his passion and death. They don’t seem to be able to cope with what they perceive to be extremely negative ideas and instead they become preoccupied with their own ambitions.
We are all familiar with this sort of displacement activity. We do it ourselves all the time. We find it hard to cope with certain serious issues and so we bury our head in the sand in the hope that the difficulties will simply go away. Of course, sometimes this strategy does actually work. After a time, things can fall into place and whatever threat faces us simply goes away. However, this is not always the case and sometimes our failure to face up to reality can make things much worse even than they were before.
The Synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, all have three predictions by Jesus of his passion and death. The fact that they occur three times means that things are really serious, that Jesus is giving the Apostles the most severe of warnings as to what is going to happen to him. Even though he warns them of his suffering and death, in each case Jesus also tells them that he will rise again. However, in each case the Apostles are quite unable to understand what Jesus is saying and simply ignore his words. In one or two cases, they simply don’t respond and the Evangelist moves the narrative forward passing swiftly on to an account of another incident in the life of Jesus.
We might wonder why the Apostles found it so hard to react appropriately to these predictions. It may be that the Evangelists are highlighting the difference between the Apostles as they were pre-Pentecost and then post-Pentecost. Once the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the Apostles they come to a much clearer understanding of what has happened as well as its significance for the world. Up to that point they are presented as dullards who do not really understand what Jesus is talking about.
I remember hearing that Edward Elgar, the famous composer, recorded in a memoir that when he was in school and his class were having obvious difficulties with a particularly difficult topic the teacher said in exasperation, ‘You are as stupid as the Apostles were before Pentecost.’
An interesting little sidelight here is that James and John ask Jesus to do them a favour before telling him what it is they want. This often happens in life. Someone will ask us for a favour but then once we have committed ourselves they usually ask for something rather banal. Here these two brothers ask for an absolute whopper; they want places either side of Jesus in his Kingdom. No wonder they wanted Jesus to commit himself before they actually made their impossible request.
We should not ignore the extent of James’ and John’s ambition. They do not merely want to get to heaven, they want the very highest places in the Kingdom, they want to sit at the left and right of Jesus when he ascends to glory.
Jesus takes them seriously and asks them if they can drink the cup that he is to drink. They blithely respond that they can, but they only respond like this because they have no conception of what Jesus really means. When Jesus responds that they surely will drink the cup that he has to drink he is obviously referring to that fact that almost all the Apostles will die a martyr’s death.
The other disciples get indignant with James and John but we find ourselves thinking that they are indignant not so much because of Jesus’ rebuke but because they did not think of asking the very same question for themselves. All the Apostles think like James and John, it is only that James and John were quicker off the mark than the others.
Jesus follows this up with his remark that a true disciple must become the servant of all. He even uses the word slave in order to underline his point. By these words Jesus means that the life of a true disciple should be in complete contrast with the life that most other people live. In the world the great men lord it over others but in the Kingdom the greatest person is the one who serves others.
A servant is employed and has periods when he is on duty but once his work is done he is a free man. However, a slave is owned and is at the total disposal of his master night and day. A slave has no free time, he can only do what his master permits. To be a slave is to live with shame all of one’s life. So for Jesus to tell us that we ought to become slaves is shocking indeed.
However, we know that in the Kingdom of God things are turned upside down. Those who are great in the world’s eyes are put to the bottom of the table while the lowly are raised to the best places. The Apostles still have to get used to this idea; it is not a concept that comes easily. I notice this same way of thinking in my own Religious Order. Certain members think that because they have served as religious for many years that means they should get perks or privileges that the younger ones don’t get. This is not the way that Jesus presents in the Gospel. For him it is humility and service that are the key values.
We all live messy and inconsistent lives, we are not always able to live up to the strictures of the Gospel. According to me, though, it is not a question so much of following all the rules but adopting the right attitudes. Being a true disciple is about assuming a Gospel mindset. It is as much about a way of thinking as a way of doing. Living the Christian life is living in an upside-down world; it is about prizing attitudes that are completely contrary to those of the rest of the world.
Like James and John, we have to come to the realisation that worldly ambition has absolutely no place in the life of an honest Christian. Like them we are slow learners, but at least we do know that true greatness is only to be found in the service of others.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket