At that time, Jesus took his twelve disciples, and he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise.” And 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 do 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 to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant of James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Two brothers are taking their families camping in the woods. They stop to set up camp. They both want to be the camping boss.
“You’re starting the fire wrong. See it’s not working, let me show you how.”
“I know how to do this, I’ve been camping more than you have.”
“Well then why isn’t the fire going already.”
“We need to set the tent up over there.”
“No, you never set a tent up in that kind of a place. Everyone knows that.”
“When I was in the army we learned that you always have to do it like this.”
“Well we’re not in the army now, General!”
Each one wants to be the big boss man. After they ruin their families’ vacation the two brothers decide to try to talk things out. (Full disclosure: their wives decided that they would talk it out). Both brothers are thinking the exact same thing. They both say, “you never listen to me.”
What they both feel is, “I want to be heard. I want to be respected. I’m not a little boy anymore. Υou need to relate to me as an adult. I want to be recognized for my accomplishments. I want to feel loved.”
They both want the other brother to feel loved as well. As it stands now, the brothers are sacrificing every real need that they have to that one perceived need which is the need to win. They would both rather win, rather push the other one down, than build the other up. Who is going to blink or back down?
In this stalemate no one is winning. Both of these brothers have become slaves to their pride. They each have a rope around their necks. Pride is holding the other end of the rope. When pride says, “stick out your chest,” they must do it. If they don’t, pride will make them feel as if they are going to die inside. When we are enslaved by our pride it is very easy for someone to grab hold of that rope and yank itand make us do things we didn’t think we would ever do, such as destroy our relationships and make a scene over a campfire.
What is it that you are attached to so much that when it is threatened you become a slave to your passion?
In today’s gospel the Apostles James and John come to Jesus to ask him if they may sit at his right and left side when Jesus comes in his kingdom. Basically they want to be as powerful and as important as you can possibly get.
Jesus asks them, “can you drink the cup that I drink?” What cup is that? It is the cup that Jesus spoke of in the garden of gethsemane saying, “take this cup from me.” It refers to his death. Jesus asks the disciples, “can you be baptized with the same baptism with which I am baptized?” That is, the baptism in which Jesus enters into the depths of hades. It sounds like Jesus is simply asking them to swear a solemn oath of allegiance. But the question is actually pedagogical. These apostles will run away from Jesus when Jesus goes to “drink of that cup,” as he suffers and dies. So no, they cannot drink of it yet. But in this passage, James and John are eager, and they say, “yes, we can do that.”
Then Jesus says, “you will indeed drink the cup that I drink … but to sit at my right or my left hand is not mine to give.” We now know that they did die as martyrs later on, when they have reached maturity in their apostolic ministry. But they have not matured yet, at the time of today’s gospel.
Why did Jesus say that he is unable to grant the places of honour to the apostles James and John? There are three issues going on here. First of all, there is no right or left-hand place beside Jesus. Jesus sits alone upon the throne. Jesus is the lamb who is slain. He is the only lamb of God.
It is in our DNA to fall down before Jesus Christ and worship him as our Lord as our God as our Saviour. It is a fundamental part of how the universe works and of how we work. Whatever passion and desire we have become enslaved to it will undermine the “one thing needful” which is to serve Jesus Christ.
Second of all, Jesus has already told the apostles earlier that they will all sit on thrones in the kingdom (just not as his equals). When James and John are making this request they are not just saying that they want to be near Jesus. They actually wanted to be greater than the rest of the disciples. As long as the brothers are fighting they are losing the very brother from whom they want respect. They are destroying the very relationship that would be the place where respect and love would happen.
Third of all, notice, when Jesus says, “it is not mine to give,” he does not go on to say, “but my Father has decided who will sit there.” He does not say whose it is to give. Ruling with Jesus means dying with him, which is our choice and he cannot make it for us.
Jesus has given us a way out of this mess. Jesus says, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man [himself!!] also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The word “ransom” is interesting. Usually when we hear the word ransom we think of hostages or kidnapping. What Jesus is talking about is buying a slave. In our analogy the rutheless master controlling each brother is pride. How can they be free?
They can be free by becoming the servant of another master. When they are freed from the false master of pride, they are free to become the servant of the real master who is Himself the full essence of love. They are free to follow Him who created us, who holds us together in an inseparable bond of shared humanity.
In our gospel reading today the disciples want to be equal to Jesus. But a disciple will never not be a disciple. Jesus does not ransom us so that we have no master. Jesus ransoms us for true freedom, which is the freedom to be His servants and disciples. We will never have any higher place, never any higher calling than to sit at Jesus’ feet. In the heavenly kingdom we will still be disciples forever.
The master teaches us by revealing himself to be present in the person of our neighbour. We honour our teacher who is coming to us disguised as a needy brother. The master teaches us by calling us to do what he does. We are Jesus’ apprentices. When we forgive we are growing into our true selves. When we cooperate and let the other person win the argument, we are becoming true man together with him who is also true God. When I build up my brother he starts to behave like a king with nobility of character and magnanimity. And even if he does not I have my peace.
We proclaim our belief that Jesus can restore all people to the kingship which is the inheritance of the servant. The best way to achieve the restored relationships that we long for is to follow Jesus, showing those around us that our hope is not in pride but in love.