29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The scene of today’s Gospel follows immediately upon Jesus’ third prediction of his coming passion, death and resurrection. He had just reaffirmed his new way of seeing physical death as an act of service leading to a full life with the Father. But the disciples find it hard to grasp this; they are remarkably slow to grasp the significance of his life and teaching. They want only to share Jesus’ glory; they want only to rank first in the kingdom. But Jesus insists that there is no greatness, no ranking first unless there is the giving of one’s self, even the giving of life in ransom for the many.
The sons of Zebedee, James and John, showed that they had missed the message of the suffering Messiah and were thinking only of him as triumphant conqueror. They requested Jesus for places of honor at his right and left side in the coming kingdom. Their abrupt and selfish request must have been discouraging to Jesus, who had placed himself in the role of a servant but was being asked to grant his disciples positions of honor and dignity. The other ten were likewise horrified at the brashness of James and John. (Probably it is no accident that Luke omits this incident from his Gospel and Matthew attributes the shameless petition to their mother).
In response, Jesus tests the two brothers. He asks if they are willing to undergo the great suffering that is a necessary part of his mission. They pledge to do so. Fine, Jesus replies, indeed you shall suffer with me, but I cannot give you the reward that you seek. Jesus thus reverses the encounter completely. The two brothers come to Jesus asking for something; Jesus refuses and demands something of them instead. That’s the way it is when one follows Jesus: we have no guarantee that we will get what we want. The only thing that Jesus promises is to be with us. Any time that we dare to go openly and without reserve into Jesus’ presence in prayer, we may come out of the experience with a new divine demand to fulfill. It is not sane spirituality to place great emphasis on getting the specific results that we want. James and John probably learned from this experience not to go to Jesus with a closed agenda, but rather ready to hear a divine response completely different from their expectations.
In the James and John incident, Jesus teaches us that real honor comes after suffering and that real honor means to serve, not to take over. For Mark, the summary of Jesus’ teaching is: to serve, not to be served.