Gospel for Twenty Ninth Sunday (18 October 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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 a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45 – NRSV)
See a similar text in Matthew 20:20-28
“Following each of Jesus’ passion predictions in 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33–34, the disciples jockey for position and prestige. The request of James and John in v. 37 is the third and most blatant example of human self-centeredness in contrast to Jesus’ humility and self-sacrifice. In response to their exclusive request, Jesus instructs the Twelve that the economy of God’s kingdom is not based on power and control but on service and giving, for the latter are not only the ethics of the kingdom but the means of edemption.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Eerdmans, 2002, 321.)
James and John are normally lined with Peter – see Mark 5:37, 9:2, 13:3 and 14:33. We might say these three constituted an inner circle with Jesus. What then is going on here that Peter is omitted? Perhaps there is a strategic move for power in the coming Kingdom by the sons of Zebedee – ‘sons of thunder’ (see Mark 3:17)? We might reasonably assume that the way in which the question is presented by James and John suggests they are doing something underhanded – “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” We should not assume purity of motivation and behaviour by the disciples.
There is a good deal of egotism at play here and Jesus unmasks it: “Jesus asks the brothers, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The answer to that question, not only in the case of the Zebedee brothers but in ours as well, lays bare our true motives, revealing whether we seek our own glory or the glory of God. This is the same question Jesus will ask of blind Bartimaeus in the following story (10:51). But the response of Bartimaeus will differ greatly from that of the brothers. Bartimaeus asks for faith, James and John ask for fame; Bartimaeus wants to follow Jesus ‘on the way’, James and John want to sit with him in glory. The Greek wording of the brothers’ request to sit with Jesus in glory carries echoes of an original Hebrew question, which likely goes back to their original request. Although Jesus has been clear and consistent about the suffering awaiting him in Jerusalem, the disciples have heard him only selectively. Like the pilgrims in the Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120–134), they regard the way to Jerusalem as a procession to grandeur. Nevertheless, despite the ill-concealed ambition of the brothers to sit beside Jesus in glory, and despite their continued misjudging of Jesus’ mission, v. 37 does in fact reveal that they acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah, and believe that in Jerusalem he will inherit his messianic kingdom. In Jewish custom the place of highest honor was at the center of the company, followed by the right and left hands, respectively. ‘Of three walking along, the teacher should walk in the middle, the greater of his disciples to his right, the smaller one at his left, and thus do we find that of the three angels who came to visit Abraham, Michael went in the middle, Gabriel at his right, Raphael at his left’, instructs the Talmud (b. Yoma 37a). The brothers hope to honor Jesus while honoring themselves. How easily worship and discipleship are blended with self-interest; or worse, self-interest is masked as worship and discipleship.” (J R Edwards, 321-322.)
We are disciples of Jesus, not because it will lead to ‘something’ for us but because it is Jesus. The focus must be on Jesus and Jesus’ intentions, not on us.
If we are doing it for our own benefit – to earn heaven or a place in the kingdom – what does that say about the commitment? To whom is the commitment made?
The essence of faith is found in Mary’s response to the Angel: “You see before you the Lord’s servant. Let it happen according to your word!” (Luke 1:38).
Will there be consequences of such a commitment? Of course! It is like marriage: The more the commitment is “for the other” the better it is for the one making the commitment. This is a beautiful paradox.
“Do all you do, acting from the core of your soul, without a single ‘Why.’ I tell you, whenever what you do is done for the sake of the Kingdom of God, or for God’s sake, or for eternal blessing, and thus really for ulterior motives, you are wrong. You may pass for a good person but this is not the best. For, truly, if you imagine you are going to get more out of God by means of religious offices and devotions, in sweet retreats and solitary prayers, than you might by the fireplace and in the stable, then you might just as well think you could seize God and wrap a mantle around his head and stick him under the table!” [Meister Eckhart in Raymond Blakeney, translator, Meister Eckhart, Harper Torchbooks, 1941, 127.]