TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22
Ambition is best reserved for the desire to scale Mt. Everest, or to attain gold medals for swimming the fastest or jumping the highest. It is never made good by injecting it into religious aspirations for holiness, as James and John learn in today’s gospel reading from Mark.
Our gospel today begins with a bold request by the apostles James and John. It’s abrupt start neglects to share with us the verses in the gospel just previous to their request, in which Jesus tells the Twelve for the third time “what was going to happen to him.” “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise.”
You can almost hear James and John say, “Okay Jesus, enough about you, what about those seats at your right and your left when you are king? We would really like to have them for ourselves.” How often must Jesus have been disappointed in his disciples. Despite His best efforts, if James and John are typical, Jesus was unable to get any of the disciples to understand that His kingship was nothing like that of an earthly kingdom. The manifest upset of the other disciples at James and John’s request (“they became indignant”) indicates that they too continued to believe in the possibility of an earthly kingdom where they would also receive positions of importance. They were less upset by what might have been considered James and John’s ignorance, and more upset by their cunning move to ask for those important seats before they did!
Too many leaders, both religious and lay, are like the disciples, who are seeking nothing more than power and prestige. They assume that leadership comes from where you sit rather than from how you serve, and so Jesus sets about to correct their understanding of what genuine leadership is all about. Jesus no doubt understood that the disciples had no real understanding about what drinking from “the cup that I drink” truly meant, yet Jesus knew that one day they would. Undiscouraged by His previous efforts, the Great Teacher tries to teach them once again that they will be called to a different kind of leadership. Worldly leaders desire absolute control, and they wish their subjects to feel their authority as they “lord it over them.” “But it shall not be so among you,” Jesus tells the disciples.
The cup the disciples are asking to drink from is not some jewel-encrusted cup of precious metal that the privileged would be accustomed to drink from. The cup of Jesus was the cup of His life, a cup that would be bitter for it would involve suffering and death. Jesus was unlike any messiah the disciples had ever dreamed of, and their understanding of messiahship would only be changed by the resurrection and post-crucifixion work of the Holy Spirit. Don’t be like the rulers of this world, Jesus tells his disciples, for “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” The reign of Jesus is not to be found in the exercise of power and control, but rather in loving, humble and sacrificial service.
The message of today’s gospel is timely for our suffering church. We suffer not only on account of the revelations of the Pennsylvania report on clerical sexual abuse, but we also suffer knowing that so many church leaders have been complicit in that scourge. Indeed, the abuse of Bishops on those entrusted to their care is known only too well. Painfully aware of what is ailing the Church, Pope Francis has made it clear in his recent talks that “we have to denounce the cases [of abuse] we know about.” Pope Francis is clear that “the abuse of power [by bishops] exists. Who among us does not know an authoritarian bishop? Forever in the Church there have been authoritarian bishops and religious superiors. And authoritarianism is clericalism.” Pope Francis sees clericalism as something that needs to be uprooted from the Church.
The “perversion of clericalism” highlighted by Pope Francis is not unlike the ambition spoken of in today’s gospel. Whatever authority one possesses as bishop, priest, or lay person, comes from above, shared with us by a loving God who wishes us to use that authority for the building up of God’s kingdom. As Michael Simon, SJ, states: “The only sure way to manifest authority in Christ’s church is to wait upon the least. The only sure way to recognize authority is to follow those who serve.” So many of us need a less worldly view of genuine authority, and “with eyes formed by Jesus’ own words and example, we will come to follow those who serve the least and give their lives for the freedom of others.” And our authority is exercised in and through the suffering we are called upon to endure, just as it was for Jesus.
“Greatness in Jesus’ community is a greatness of service,” says John Donahue in a commentary on our gospel passage. “Gentile, that is Roman, power was exercised primarily through force, intimidation and an elaborate network of patronage that tried to assure absolute loyalty to the emperor. The way power is maintained in the secular world of rulers and ruled is anathema to true followers of Jesus.” Our authority gives us the power not to lord it over others, but to bring out what is best in the other person. It is a power to heal, a power to guide; a power to forgive, to encourage, to bless and not condemn, to build up rather than to tear down. It is a power given to those who drink from the cup of the Lord, “for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The power of those who follow in the footsteps of the Lord is a power of overwhelming good, and we are privileged to exercise that power in service to others.