lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Today we continue to read from the Gospel according to Mark. I think the reason that the Gospel according to Mark is my favorite to study is really because of the treatment of the Apostles. This was the first Gospel written, and it was closer to the actual events described than the other three. Perhaps that is why the Apostles come across as not only so human, but oftentimes, rather dull and somewhat out of it. I like that fact that they are human and make mistakes, that Jesus has to correct them patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, and that it takes them a long time to understand the significance of what is actually going on. I guess it is because I can better relate the Apostles to my ‘slowness’ in getting things as well. I have only been ordained for a couple years, So, it took me a long time to ‘get it’, too.
First, we need a little context because today’s reading has been taken out of its context. In the paragraph just before our Gospel reading, Jesus was going up to Jerusalem with his Apostles and he began to talk again of the events that would soon happen – that he would be taken up by the chief priests and scribes, condemned and put to death. It is hard to imagine what must have been going on in the minds of the Apostles when Jesus spoke like this. Since they hadn’t yet put the whole puzzle together, it may have seemed to them merely that Jesus was showing what ‘could’ happen to him as a result of some of the revolutionary teachings he was giving. What Jesus says to the Apostles is similar to the first reading today – the suffering servant who makes ‘his life an offering for sin’. His death would be necessary for the establishment of the kingdom, since it is his death that saves us. This is immediately followed by today’s Gospel reading.
So in today’s Gospel it is the two apostles James and John, two brothers and two of the first to follow Jesus, who come to Jesus with a request. They know that Jesus has been talking about this kingdom that he is going to establish and they want to make sure that they get a good place in the new kingdom. After all, they gave up everything to follow Jesus, so it seems only fair to them that they should get a good position – one on his left and one on his right. The very request that they make shows that they haven’t been understanding what the kingdom Jesus has been preaching is all about. Their question has no tact, especially when Jesus has just been talking about his own suffering and death, while all they can think of is their own glory. Their approach in asking the question is interesting. It is like when we go up to someone and say: I have something I want you to do. Please tell me you will do it.” We try to get them to agree even before we tell them what is it we want. Jesus doesn’t let them get away with it – he just asks back: “What is it you want me to do for you?” So James and John tell him that they want to have some prestige in the new kingdom – they want to be Jesus’ right and left hand men.
Jesus’ reply indicates a little disappointment in them. “You do not know what you are asking,” he says. And so he gives them a condition – that if this is what they really want, this is what is going to happen. You are going to have to share my cup. I know that today we immediately think of Jesus’ cup as the Eucharist, but it was actually an expression or metaphor for what God has in store for a person. Jesus’ use of the expression means that they will have to be united with him and suffer with him in whatever redemptive act was going to take place. Since James and John had obviously not picked up on this whole ‘suffering and death’ idea earlier, they probably don’t get it even yet.
Jesus continues with a description of baptism, but used more in the sense of baptism as a drowning, a death. Jesus ‘ own baptism on the Jordan has always been seen by the church as a foreshadowing of Jesus ‘ own death. That is why the early church saw baptism as joining with Christ in his death, dying to one’s old self, and rising out of the water in new life with Christ. In any case, we have the use of two of the earliest sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – as ways to understand what is going to happen to Jesus and the results of it. When James and John eagerly say that they can share the cup, they really don’t yet understand what that is to mean for them. That will unfold in the next few weeks. And it is ironic that ones who are on his right and left when he dies are not James and John, but two thieves. Jesus is serious when he talks about their willingness to do this with him, though he knows they don’t really understand. He says that they will drink the cup with him, but he doesn’t promise the status that they want. He says it is up to God the Father alone to make such decisions.
The other apostles were a bit miffed when they heard what James and John had been asking. Obviously there had been some vying for Jesus ‘ attention and love. So Jesus uses it as yet another moment to teach the Apostles and let them understand that in the new kingdom status and power are not like they are in the old world order. In this new kingdom the Apostles will be the reverse of what they expect. The leadership they seem to so want so badly will be one of service and not of power, and that the only way to become great is to imitate Jesus in his humble, servant-like love for others, willing to give up one’s life for others.
This seems to me to be a clear direction for all Church authority: church leaders are to be servants or slaves to others, putting their own needs last, and taking care of the humblest needs of the most needy of men and women. They are to be “the slave to all!” This is an amazingly difficult concept and an even more difficult act to follow.
The Gospel closes with what could be called the mission statement of Jesus: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is the whole theological message of the Gospel of Mark in a nutshell, and words that we need to meditate on often. It is like the suffering servant of Isaiah that we read in the first reading: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin….” Jesus is the embodiment of this suffering servant who dies for our sins. He became man, lowered himself, humbled himself, so that we could find salvation through him. In the Letter to the Hebrews today we see how the early Church understood this: “We do not have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin”. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” In other words, if Jesus has become our servant and is so wiling to help us, let us not be afraid to go to him for help and to trust in his great Wisdom.
Today’s readings give us the mandate to go to Jesus with our problems and to ask his help, but also to treat others in the same way, becoming helpers for them as well. What a world this would be if we could all feel that we can be helped and our own work was to help others in need!
St. Valentine Faith Community
Mass: 10AM Every Sunday
2670 Chandler Avenue
Suite 7 & 8
Las Vegas, NV 89120
702-523-8963 Rev Sue Provost, Pastor
"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. " (1 John 4:9-10)