"Spiritual formation cannot be forced, only prepared for. Hence its means cannot be those of conquest, but only of facilitation and preparation." [Adrian van Kaam, Studies in Formative Spirituality, I, 2 (1980), 303]

Gospel for the Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 October 2021)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Jimproving your serve

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James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45 – NRSV).

Introductory notes

General

The inappropriateness and the jarring effect of the request by James and John, is emphasized by the fact that it comes in the wake of clear teachings by Jesus about what is involved in being part of the kingdom – teachings that are utterly antithetical to what they have just requested:

  • Mark 8:31-33: The first prophecy of the Passion followed immediately by his teaching on taking up one’s cross.
  • Mark 9:30-32: The second prophecy of the Passion followed immediately by Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples for arguing about who is the greatest in the kingdom.
  • Mark 10:17-32: The incident with the rich young man and a teaching concerning the danger of riches and the rewards of renunciation.
  • Mark 10:32-34: The third prophecy of the Passion.

Matthew has a similar report of James and John seeking special places in the kingdom. However, Matthew says it is the mother of James and John who makes the request – see Matthew 20:20-23.

And might there be a power-play happening here? Normally Peter appears as the leader and often enough is mentioned together with James and John – see 1:29, 5:37, 9:2, 13:3 and 14:33. In this instance James and John – without Peter – seem to be seeking some kind of special arrangement with Jesus. This is the only time we find James and John acting together without Peter. Matthew – as indicated above – blames their mother.

Specific

we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you: This is an outrageous request. Their self-centredness shows they have much to learn. “Their names (ie James and John) are anchored to this story because of the audacity of their request. Mark’s source for this narrative is most probably Peter, who had reason to remember and relay this story. Peter, James, and John comprised Jesus’ earthly inner circle, and the request of the brothers to exclude him from the heavenly circle in glory cannot have been soon forgotten by the chief apostle. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ‘Teacher’ is the honorific title that suppliants, whether friends or foreigners, normally use in the Synoptics when making requests of Jesus. The aorist tense of the Greek verbs for ‘ask’ and ‘do’ indicates that they have a specific request in mind. The request for an assurance beforehand from Jesus betrays the brothers’ misgivings about their request. Their asking Jesus to sign a blank check, as it were, is even more elitist than the statement of the apostle John in 9:38. It is self-serving, callous toward Jesus, and an offense to their comrades” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 321). Another commentator observes: “For the call of Zebedee’s sons to follow Jesus see Mark 1:19–20. Throughout the gospel they along with Peter form an inner circle among the Twelve (see 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; also 1:29). This is the only incident in which they act on their own. Is Peter’s absence significant? In fact Matthew seems to have found their request so offensive that he blames it on ‘the mother of the sons of Zebedee’ (Matt 20:20–21)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 311).

What is it you want me to do for you?: Jesus is supremely constrained in his response. I wonder how he actually felt at that moment?

that we should sit: “It is hard to know whether James and John are evoking the image of the messianic banquet (see Luke 14:15–24; Matt 22:1–10) or that of the heavenly throne room (see Revelation 4–5)” (Ibid).

in your glory: “For other Markan references to the glorious parousia of Jesus see 8:38; 13:26; and 14:62. The disciples’ willingness to ignore the content of Jesus’ very detailed Passion prediction reveals the depth of their misunderstanding of him” (Ibid).

The cup that I drink you will drink etc: Jesus assures the two disciples that they will indeed share his journey and ultimately his triumph. But you would have to wonder whether James and John – these “sons of thunder” (see Mark 3:17) – have any idea of what Jesus is telling them.

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John: Of course! However, we can wonder what actually motivated their anger. Were “the ten” nurturing similar ambitions? And what was Peter thinking?

So Jesus called them and said to them etc: One commentator writes: “he ‘summoned them’ would be more appropriate, for the Gk. proskaleomai occurs on nine occasions in Mark when Jesus gathers the disciples and/or crowds for a decisive lesson. The world, says Jesus, practices leadership from a model of dominance, authority, and the effective uses of power and position” (J R Edwards, op cit, 324). Our commentator continues: “At no place do the ethics of the kingdom of God clash more vigorously with the ethics of the world than in the matters of power and service. The ideas that Jesus presents regarding rule and service are combined in a way that finds no obvious precedent in either the OT or Jewish tradition. In a decisive reversal of values, Jesus speaks of greatness in service rather than greatness of power, prestige, and authority: ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ (see 9:35; Luke 22:24–27). The preeminent virtue of God’s kingdom is not power, not even freedom, but service. Ironically, greatness belongs to the one who is not great, the diakonos, the ordinary Greek word for waiting on tables …. The preeminence of service in the kingdom of God grows out of Jesus’ teaching on love for one’s neighbor, for service is love made tangible” (J R Edwards, op cit, 325-326).

Reflection – “What is a servant”?

Mark begins his Gospel by telling us that Jesus has come to proclaim that “‘the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (1:14-15). Everything that follows in Mark’s Gospel is about this “Good News …. of the kingdom of God”. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have one intent: To enable us to grow into a way of being in which God reigns.

Service is a constant theme in the Bible. It takes on a particular significance in the Christian Scriptures. Sometimes the theme is explicit, mostly it is implicit. Thus, Matthew tells us: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28). Life in the kingdom is characterized by service: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14) and “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Today’s Gospel – Mark 10:35-45 – offers us one of two particularly instructive moments in which Mark makes the theme of servanthood explicit. The first moment is found in Jesus’ response to the outrageous request by James and John: “‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. …. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’”. Jesus tells the two that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant”. He is not offering them a strategy for greatness! He is, rather, reminding them – and the other disciples – of what life will be like when God reigns in their minds and hearts. De facto, he is also reminding them that their question shows they are yet some distance from the kingdom! Service and servanthood, when they are flourishing in the community, will be signs that the kingdom has begun to take hold. In particular, they will be signs of our communion in Jesus Christ: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The second instructive moment is found in 9:34-37. Jesus has become aware that the disciples have been engaged in an animated conversation as they walked along the road. He asks what it was about. “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (9:34). In an especially beautiful moment, Jesus takes the opportunity to explicate a central truth of the kingdom: “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mark 9:35–37).

So what do you think Jesus’ words and actions with the little child mean?