Is 53:10-11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45
AUTHORITY IS SERVICE
There is a common practice in our Cameroonian society that every time someone is appointed to a high government post in the country, many people lobby to secure a position of any sort in that government agency. Sometimes some people ask others to put in word with someone in government for their son or daughter to be appointed in some government agency. It can be very embarrassing, indeed. In today’s gospel, the two brothers, James and John, are very much like these seekers of government office. They very blatantly ask Jesus for a place on the seats at his right and left hand. Presumably, these seats would be the two top ministerial positions, like those of Prime Minister and Director of Civil Cabinet in Cameroon.
- “MASTER, WE WANT YOU TO DO US A FAVOUR!”
Today, our gospel reading begins from Mark 10:35ff. Three verses before (i.e., Mk 10: 32-34), Jesus had just announced, for the third time, that he was going to be insulted, condemned to death, scourged and killed. (The two previous times, can be found in the gospel texts of the 24th Sunday B—Mk 8:33, and the 25th B—Mk 9:33-36.) One would expect the disciples to ask the Master to explain his words or to make an attempt to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem or even suggest that he should wait for a more favourable time. Nothing of all this! His disciples do not seem to have grasped the meaning of his words. It may sound strange, but they were still convinced that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem to fulfil the hopes of all the people about the beginning of Messianic times, to establish a kingdom of this world with great political power. We have the proof of their inability to grasp this fact right at the start of the gospel of today (Mk 9:35-36).
The behaviour of the two brothers, James and John, by coming up to Jesus, and in front of all, without hesitation or any sign of what we may define as ‘good manners’, telling him: “Master, we want you to do us a favour!”, is a clear proof of their failure to understand Jesus. They do not even say, “Please”; just a blunt “We want.” They sound as if they are telling everyone that they have a right to the first places in the kingdom that Jesus is about to establish. (After all, were they not among the ‘chosen three’ of Jesus?). Luke does not report this episode, but Matthew tells us that it was their mother who asked Jesus for this privilege for her son. Whatever the case, her two boys should have told her the real nature of Jesus’ kingdom, if they were convinced about what Jesus had consistently told them!
The other ten disciples were no fools. Their reaction is pretty sharp and shows that they too have assimilated very little of the teaching of their Master. They also wanted the same positions. So, they took offence with the requests of James and John. Why would they want the two top positions just for their family? The two brothers were being greedy, very selfish!
- JESUS TAKES THE OCCASION TO TEACH THEM
Jesus must have been amused at their pettiness. But rather than rebuke them, he took the occasion to teach them a lesson or two about the kind of kingdom he was going to establish:
- a) The first lesson was that everyone wishing to have a seat in his kingdom—any seat at all—must be prepared to drink the cup that Jesus would drink and be baptized with the baptism with which he would be baptized. That cup and that baptism would translate simply as SUFFERING. Jesus would enter into his glory only through suffering. And it was through the same suffering that he would redeem the world.
The First reading (Is 53:10-11), which is an excerpt of the last of four beautiful prophecies/songs about a mysterious SERVANT who would bring salvation through his sufferings, brings out this point of SUFFERING clearly. It talks of the suffering servant giving his life as an offering for sin. “By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself.” Through his suffering the servant shall bear the guilt of many. Taking Jesus to be that servant, it could not be clearer; Jesus gave his life as an offering for our sin, he bore our guilt, and through his suffering he justified many. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy also makes this clear; “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
Therefore, anyone wishing to join Jesus in his glory must be ready to go through the same route of suffering. James and John said they were ready to do that. Jesus believes them. The rules have remained the same ever since. Anyone seeking a place in the kingdom of Jesus must be prepared to suffer. Any other view to the contrary is obviously not that of Jesus; it does not come from him.
- b) The second lesson that Jesus taught his disciples on that SERVICE would be one of the distinguishing marks of his kingdom from those of this world. In his kingdom, service would be preferred and more honourable than lording it over other people. In the world, “among the pagans”, as Jesus put it, their so-called rulers and their great men demand to be served by their subjects. Or, to use the words of Jesus again, they “lord it” over their subjects and make their authority felt. They issue orders, demand privileges, and want to be greeted ceremoniously. People have to kneel in front them and call them by honourific titles. Jesus orders that “among you this is not happen!” In the kingdom of Jesus, the opposite is the case. The rulers and the great leaders should be the ones doing the serving, in imitation of the Son of Man who did not come to be served but to serve. In the Church, therefore, anyone seeking a position, an office, a ministry of any kind must be prepared to play the role of a servant in that position. It is not for nothing that every office or position in the Church is called “MINISTRY”, a word which means literally SERVICE.
- THE APOSTLES LATER LEARNT THEIR LESSON
When Jesus responded to James and John that they surely will drink the cup that he will to drink, he was obviously referring to the fact that almost all the Apostles would die a martyr’s death. With time, they learnt to drink the cup and to undergo the baptism of Jesus’ passion. Apart from John, and Judas Iscariot who hanged himself (Matthew 27:5) before Jesus Christ died by crucifixion (A.D. 33), history and tradition tell us that all the other disciples died as martyrs.
- James was the first of the apostles to be martyred for Jesus. In Acts 12:2 we read that Herod had him slain by the sword in Jerusalem.
- Simon Peter: Tradition says that Peter died crucified upside down on a cross.
- Andrew was crucified on a St. Andrews cross. The cross has the shape of an “X.” He was not nailed to the cross but was tied.
- Philip died in Hieropolis, Turkey, by hanging (A.D. 80).
- Bartholomew (Nathanael) was flogged and hacked to death with knives in India.
- Matthew died a martyr’s death in Ethiopia
- Thomas (Didymus) died near Madras, India in A.D. 70, killed with a spear.
- James, son of Alphaeus (James the Less, according Mark 15:33-41) was crucified in Lower Egypt and then sawed in pieces (A.D. 62).
- Jude Thaddaeus was martyred in Persia with arrows.
- Simon (the Cananaean, the Zealot) was crucified. It is believed that he ministered together with Thaddaeus.
- CHRISTIAN WITNESSING TODAY
We know from Church history that many of the early Christians died as martyrs. But when they were no longer required to become martyrs, that is, witnesses to Christ with their blood, many of them became CONFESSORS, that is, witnesses through their lives of prayer and service. We, Christians of today, who may not be so exposed to the martyrdom that requires one to shed his/her blood, are called to live lives of Christian witnessing as priests and religious, as Christian husbands and wives, Christian parents, Christian teachers, traders, Christian civil servants, etc. Today’s gospel is not addressed only to those in high authority but to all the disciples of Jesus. If anybody wants to follow the Master, he/she must take up the attitude of a SERVANT. The husband and wife who are not “servants” to each other, the teacher who is not “servant” to his/her pupils or students, the medical doctor who does not see him/herself as “servant” to his/her patients, the trader who seeks only his/her self-interest instead of trying to keep his/her customers happy through good service and honest prices, all these people have not yet understood what it means to follow the one who became the servant of all: Jesus of Nazareth.
Let us look at a concrete example in our society today – the notion of being a “Civil Servant”: In our time, people tend to consider work only as a means of making money for oneself, or for one’s family. In very many cases, people have lost the sense of work as public service, as service for the common good of the community and of society. People do as little as they can and get away with it. We have arrived at a situation in which the beautiful expression CIVIL SERVANT has been largely emptied of its original meaning as it was known and lived, for example, in the former British Cameroons. In the British Cameroon government system, it was unheard of for a Civil Servant to ask to be “motivated” in order to do the work for which he/she was employed and paid by the Government, i.e., by the tax-payer. A Civil Servant recognized that he/she was employed, not in order that the citizens might serve him/her, but in order that he/she might serve the citizens. That is why, in any official letter addressed to any citizen, every Civil Servant, of whatever rank, always ended the letter with the following words: “I have the honour to be, Sir (or Madam), Your humble servant.”
Civil Servants do not lord it over the citizens. They do not exploit them. In carrying out their official duties, Civil Servants bear credible witness to the fact that they are not there to be served by their fellow citizens, but to serve. Today, we have arrived at a situation in which public functionaries can earn salaries for years without doing any work. They do so with impunity, and seemingly, with no qualms of conscience whatsoever. It is our responsibility, as disciples of Jesus, to try to change and to transform this attitude to work, first and foremost, by our own example. As a Chinese proverb puts it: It is better to light a candle than to curse the surrounding darkness.
The Second reading of today, coming from the Letter to the Hebrews, announces that “we have a High Priest” (Heb 4:14-16). Jesus is that “priest’ who offers the sacrifice of his own life in order to atone for our sins. For as the Prophet Isaiah affirms in the First Reading of today, “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear” (Is 53:11). He did this self-giving in perfect humility: “Though he was the Son of God, he learnt obedience through SUFFERING.” This is very consoling and reassuring, because it shows that Jesus who gives us the model of leadership, is also close to us, and very mindful of our problems in spite of our sinfulness. Let us, therefore, approach him with confidence as we pray for the virtues of HUMILITY and SERVICE in our daily lives.