While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Jesus’ words in today’s reading could not be more counter-cultural to the world in which we are living. People do not see being a ‘servant’ or a ‘slave’ as an ambition for themselves. It is drummed into us from a very early age that we should aspire to being the best we can possibly be. People dream of power and riches, they do not dream of fulfilling what they perceive to be the lowliest functions in society. People want to be lawyers and accountants and film stars, they do not choose to see themselves in one of those essential, under-valued roles that mean subservience to the demands and directions of others.
Of course, we cannot all be at the top of the tree. There is a natural hierarchy which becomes apparent as we grow older, as our minds are expanded, as our horizons are broadened. This is not to say that we are pre-destined to fit into certain slots in society. Effort, enterprise and the right circumstances do allow a level of social mobility that did not exist in earlier times. But … we still cannot all be at the top of the tree.
Today’s reading begins with Jesus using himself as a model of this teaching. Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. Furthermore, Jesus will be mocked and flogged and crucified. Even the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, will experience the humiliation of being treated as one of no value. But, as we know, on the third day he will be raised. Jesus, through his ultimate sacrifice of power, will come to ascend to the ultimate place of power, with his Father in heaven.
The mother of James and John seems to realize the meaning of Jesus’ prediction. She seems to understand the divine kingship that will come at the end of Jesus’ sojourn in this world. Despite the ignominy of what lies ahead, she knows that her sons may, in their time, be able to grab a share in that kingship. Like many an earthly mother, she then tries to get at the front of the queue on behalf of her children. In response, Jesus makes it clear that she does not really understand. Firstly, she is asking something that is only in the gift of God in heaven. Secondly, anyone who aspires to the eternal life must first be prepared to sacrifice everything in this world.
Jesus’ other disciples are privy to the exchange between the doting mother and their Lord, and they are angered. But, Jesus tempers their anger with these words: whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave. That message is at the heart of Jesus’ call today, and through all time. To claim the dignity of true discipleship demands our being prepared to set aside all those dreams of worldly wealth and power. Instead, we need to be ready to serve, even without reward. We need to be ready to join Jesus when, at the Last Supper, he will get on his knees and wash the feet of those we see as being lowlier than him.
Let us pray for the strength to serve in a selfless way. Let us pray for the courage to set aside glory and power in order that we might follow the example of the one who holds all glory and power, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.