Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B) | Fr Dermot Morrin on the amazement and fear that Jesus arouses in his disciples but, more importantly, hope in overcoming vice.
“The Son of man also came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). This line is a key that unlocks the Gospel of Mark. In this one statement, Jesus identifies himself both with the suffering servant from Isaiah and with the Son of man from the Book of Daniel. The three prophecies that the Son of man must be killed and after three days be raised echo the fate of the suffering servant in Isaiah, whilst three other prophecies about the Son of man speak about him coming in glory (8:38, 13:26, 14:62). This passage calls us to a faith which can hold together both images of the Son of man: the one who is broken and humiliated on the cross and the one enthroned in glory and seated at the right hand of the Father.
The request from James and John makes some sense if it is considered in the context of the Son of Man coming in glory only. Or were Jesus the kind of Messiah who is going to the holy city to restore the lost throne of King David, then, although the request seem to be very self-serving, it is reasonable. But set against the identification of Jesus with Isaiah’s suffering servant, the request of James and John fails to make much sense, beyond misplaced ambition. The brothers do not know what they are asking. Ironically, it will be two robbers “one on his right and one on his left” (15:27) who will take the very places that they seek.
The failure of the disciples to understand Jesus only serves to deepen our understanding of Jesus. Just before the brothers’ make their request, Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples were going up to Jerusalem. Jesus went before them. As they followed him, Mark says that the disciples were both amazed and afraid. Their amazement and fear was not because of the dangers that Jerusalem presented. Jesus himself provoked in them both amazement and fear. Here, they see Jesus walk ahead of them, with an extraordinary freedom and authority. He holds his own destiny firmly in his hands and will see it come to fulfillment. Again and again, in the Gospel of Mark, this same authority provokes a similar mix of amazement and fear in those who encounter Jesus. It is there, for example, in the disciples when he calmed the storm (4:39-41). It is implicit in the reaction of the woman, who was healed from an issue of blood when he turned around and asked, “who touched my garments?” (5:30). We see it again in the disciples when he came to them walking on the water in the fourth watch of the night, saying “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (6:50). It is there at the end of the gospel when the women flee in fear from the empty tomb (16:8).
When asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” James and John should have answered, “No!” Or maybe, “Not yet.” They did not fully understand that he is the only one who in bearing their iniquities can “make many to be accounted righteous” (Is 53:11). This is the cup and the baptism. The indignation of the others shows that they all fail to grasp the scale of the self-renunciation that is involved. A while before, he had told them that they must be “last of all and servant of all” (9:35), but now he puts himself before them as one who will seal his service by the giving his life. When he drinks his cup and undergoes his baptism, they will be scattered, having fled in fear. But the Risen Jesus will tell them that he is going before them into Galilee where he will gather them so that later on they too will be able to share his cup and his baptism. For some of them it might eventually mean martyrdom but surely it also means that they share his way of service and, in this way, the cup he drank and the baptism he underwent. And together with James and John, we are given seats at his banquet, a prize won by him and not us.
It is true that the request of James and John lays bare their ambition, but it is also true that their honesty is revealed. Despite the negative light in which they are seen here, by the time of Mark they must have been revered as among the first chosen by Jesus and entrusted with preaching the Good News. Their story is handed on to us with good reason. Does it not make us ponder how Jesus, who made the deaf to hear and gave sight to the blind, can in time transform even those who are now as James and John once were? If Jesus is followed in faith and honesty, then confusion can be driven out by wisdom, fear by courage, pride by humility, rivalry by collaboration, and selfish ambition by a self-giving love. There is hope for all of us yet. Such is the life-giving power of the ransom, which he has paid for us.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window from St Etheldreda's in London.