29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. (…) Allow us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [MK 10:35, 37]
Um…James and John, excuse me, but were you listening?
Jesus’ disciples were slow to learn. This is evident throughout the Gospels. There were probably many times when Jesus just shook his head in frustration. But the lesson of servant-leadership was as radical then as it is now; Jesus knew it was dangerous; he knew it meant suffering, entailed self-denial, relinquishment of power and any expectation of reward. He also knew it was the only way.
The Gospel of Mark was written about 66-70 C.E. for a community of marginalized, mostly Gentile Christians living amid the Jewish revolt against Rome, a time when anything deemed to be anti-Roman was a valid cause for persecution. For many, the choice to remain Christian meant certain death, so the question of “is this really worth it?” was their reality. The Gospel writer’s aim was to shore up the community’s faith in Jesus’ identity and to help them make sense of their suffering in the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship.
We still need this reassurance, don’t we? I know I do, and Mark’s focus on discipleship—who “gets it” and who does not—is one of the reasons I love studying it.
For the past six weeks (the 24th through 29th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into the particular journey of the apostles and the larger group of disciples following Jesus as they neared Jerusalem. Jesus’ lessons along the way could be called a “way of the cross” because through them he reveals the conditions and rigors of discipleship. [MK 8:22-10:52]
This is why James and John’s question to Jesus is so appalling. When the two brothers approached Jesus he had just finished telling the twelve, for the third time, about his impending death. You have to wonder if James and John heard a word of what he said.
Perhaps they developed selective listening because they already heard Jesus predict his death twice before [MK 8:31-35, 9:30-32], and the more graphic details Jesus provided about being handed over, mocked, spit upon, and flogged before being killed didn’t register with them. [MK 10:33-34a]
Or maybe they zeroed in on Jesus’ words about rising on the third day, concluded they were in the clear and began to work out their own bright futures in the Kingdom. [MK 10:34b]
Perhaps they did not listen when Jesus redirected his comments about how hard it was to enter the Kingdom of God from the rich man to the disciples? [MK 10:24]
Surely they remembered the time when Jesus shot down the idea that any of the disciples should consider themselves the greatest. [MK 9:33-37]
Maybe James and John thought the other times Jesus spoke about the first being last and the last being first [MK 9:35. 10:31] he meant if for the others, since the two of them plus Peter seemed to be in Jesus’ inner circle. (Mark’s gospel includes three important events with Jesus that the other apostles were not privy to: the raising of Jairus’ daughter [MK 5:21-43], Jesus’ Transfiguration [MK 9:2-13], and keeping watch while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane [MK 14:32-42].)
After Jesus predicted his death the third time James and John seemed to say, “Hey Jesus, phew! That sounds rough. So glad it’s going to work out, though. Just wondering…when you get to the heavenly banquet could you save those seats on either side of you? You know, just throw your cloak or something over them so everyone knows they are taken. Thanks dude!”
In their zeal for winning favoritism they eagerly assure Jesus they can drink the same cup and share the same baptism. Their affirmation, however, does not indicate they comprehend the depth of Jesus’ cup: that it is filled with suffering then salvation, and his baptism leads to death then resurrection.
James and John’s question speaks to the overall incomprehension of Jesus’ followers—contemporary Christians included—of the cost of discipleship. Mark’s Gospel continues, “When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.” [MK 10:41]. We might initially think the ten were upset by James’ and John’s selfishness, but it is likely at least some of them shared the same self-interest and were ticked that James and John beat them to the punch. Ouch.
The community for whom Mark wrote his Gospel may also have included a few members who misunderstood the lesson of true greatness. Perhaps like James and John in today’s passage, they wanted to hitch their wagon to Jesus’ glory. Today’s church is no different. We want the glory but aren’t that thrilled about all the heavy lifting that goes with it. The thing is, to understand Mark’s gospel is to grasp that discipleship progresses to the cross.
Jesus’ teaching on service is clear. The privilege awarded to the disciple entails carrying that cross for others, and that leads to redemption. Jesus calls us to follow him, and fortunately for us he never throws up his hands and gives up on us, even those times when we drop our cross.
Mark’s Gospel tells us no disciple is perfect. Everyone, including the reader is in process.