For the past Sundays, we have followed Jesus as he journeys towards Jerusalem to accomplish his saving mission. The apostles interpret this to mean that Jesus will finally establish the long-expected messianic kingdom.
Jesus tells them, however, that in Jerusalem “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Three times he speaks of his impending passion, death, and resurrection, but each time he does, the apostles do not seem to understand, or they simply do not want to accept his words.
The first time Jesus predicts his passion, Peter stands in his way and tries to dissuade him from proceeding to Jerusalem. Later, when he makes his second prediction, the apostles engage in a heated discussion about who will be the greatest in the hoped-for kingdom.
Today’s gospel recounts what ensues after Jesus predicts his passion and death for the third time. James and John approach Jesus to ask him the favor of allowing them to sit, one at his right and the other at his left when he comes to his glory. Upon hearing this, the other ten feels cheated and become indignant with the two scheming brothers.
Jesus then takes the occasion to teach his apostles the valuable lesson on greatness. True greatness means humility, service, and self-sacrifice.
In contrast to the world’s standard, to be great in the kingdom of God is to be humble. In fact, on more than one occasion, Jesus presents the child, the least and most insignificant member of society, as the greatest in the kingdom.
There is nothing wrong with honor or power in itself. Power has the capacity to make things happen. It can accomplish much when used for the sake of the common good. But when power is used to serve the ego, it becomes dangerous and destructive. We see this happening in despotic governments, oppressive cartels, authoritarian families, and skewed relationships. We observe this among the apostles whose ambition sadly reduces them into petty, devious, and manipulative social climbers.
Thus, Jesus exhorts them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them… but it shall not be so among you.”
“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Jesus himself gives an example of a life of service. He, who “did not come to be served, but to serve,” spends his life in the constant ministry of preaching, healing, and doing good.
He demonstrates this lesson most eloquently as he kneels to wash the feet of his apostles at the last supper.
Service is an evangelical value that is in complete opposition to the world’s lust for power and prestige, which unfortunately can be found in the Church as well.
As we enter into election time once again, we would do well to review and apply these valuable lessons of Jesus on authority and power.
The first reading tells of a suffering servant who is “crushed in infirmity and gives his life as an offering for sin… through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” This prophecy in Isaiah is fulfilled in Jesus, who comes “to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
When the two brothers impudently ask for a reservation to the prime seats in the kingdom, Jesus asks them in turn, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
The cup is a biblical metaphor for the punishment meant for the wicked which the Father asks his Son to drink on behalf of the whole of humanity (remember the agony in the garden of Gethsemane). Baptism is likewise an image of being plunged or immersed into all the suffering deserved by our sins.
Clearly, the two brothers do not understand what Jesus has been saying all along – that the path to any glory leads through suffering and death.
This Sunday, our readings teach us a most powerful and relevant lesson that “for the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross.” (Pope Francis)*