Has this ever happened to you? You come to Mass, hear a story from scripture with all too human characters making all too human and slightly boneheaded choices and, ugh, you can see yourself in the story? This happens to me all too frequently. I sit there and say to myself, would I have done or said the same thing? Here’s a couple classics from the Jim vault:
- Doubting Thomas – If I wasn’t there in the upper room when Jesus appeared, would I be saying, “Look, I’m sure Jesus really was here, but unless I put my fingers in the nail holes and my hand in his side, then hey I am not really sure.”
- Peter walking on the water – it was going great for a few steps until doubt set in…. How quickly I can relapse into doubt sometimes….
So, in the Gospel today we have two apostles who are acting based on human wants and standards while Jesus is operating at a whole different level. Our two heroes, James and John, and yes, they are heroes as we will see, walk right up to Jesus and ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…. Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other on your left.” Now that took guts! Interesting side note, in the Gospel of Matthew, James and John send their mother Salome to ask Jesus for these privileged seats!
Humans so very much like me and maybe you too with their priorities sometimes out of whack. They are thinking as humans do with only their self-interests at heart. Yikes, that’s me! I fall into these traps of wanting that exalted seat, that special place, that membership to the “inner circles” of society.
James and John, wrapped up in themselves, wanting to be special, and jockeying for position. Human nature on display! This is kind of what we do when our priorities are out of order. What is interesting though is how Jesus reacted. Did he show anger? Frustration? Did he roll his eyes? He certainly could have, but he didn’t. To fully understand how he reacted, we need to go back to the first reading from Isaiah. Isaiah preached about the suffering servant who was to come to take on the sins of humanity. Jesus reacts as Isaiah predicted, not as a servant out for himself, not as a servant with a self-serving agenda, but as a servant in the truest sense of the word. Jesus reacts with humility, compassion and love, as a servant worthy of our praise!
In the reading from Hebrews, Saint Paul teaches us that Jesus Christ can completely and totally relate to us. He writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been similarly tested in every way.” He is a servant who knows our innermost needs as well as our foibles because he walked among us.
So, getting back to the Gospel, do you remember the simple question Jesus asked James and John? It was, “What do you wish me to do for you?” A humble, quiet question ahead of an outlandish request. And in response to their request, Jesus instead lays out a blueprint for life, a different way and really a radical way to live. I wonder what was going through James and John’s mind when Jesus looked them in the eye and said, “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.”
Jesus has turned the request on its ear and encourages the disciples, and encourages us, to a different kind of greatness. He does not say that aspiring to greatness is wrong, he instead redefines what greatness is. Jesus defines by the standards of his heavenly Father, not by earthly standards. I love when Jesus said, after talking about how the rulers of the day lord it over their subjects, “But it shall not be so among you.” He is asking the disciples to change their way and define greatness as measured by service with a heavenly reward. And he is asking all of us to change also, to adopt this radical approach of service, this non-earthly and not so crazy idea of putting ourselves last.
So, back to our two heroes James and John. And as I mentioned earlier, they are heroes! After hearing Jesus redirect their quest for greatness into a whole new way of thinking, what did they do? Did they change? Or did they continue to define greatness on human terms?
First James, my namesake. James went on to be a passionate preacher of the Gospel after the resurrection and was so effective it earned him the crown of being the first apostle to be martyred. He definitely changed.
How about John, how did John come to define his ministry and his service? It was all based on one thing, love. We cease hearing about John wanting to be exalted and instead hear so much about his great love for his Lord and for all. He definitely changed.
And what about the mother of James and John, Salome? She too changed! Scripture tells us she was at the Cross, was with the women who came to the tomb on Easter morning and is a Saint of the Church!
They all changed, so what about us? When have we asked for that “special seat”? What represents that “seat” in our lives? Maybe it is time for us to take stock of the “seats” we want, maybe we need a fall clean up in our lives.
Jesus teaches us that we are to serve by…
- Putting others needs ahead of our own
- Listening to the stories of hurt, pain and suffering…patiently
- Tending to the physical needs of others
- And to love at all times even when it is difficult
When we do this, life becomes simpler, less hectic, more rewarding. We have more peace because we are following that blueprint and doing his will. It is his peace and it is his grace at work in our lives.
After hearing the request from James and John, Jesus said, “What do you wish me to do for you?” Maybe that should be our question to him.