You would have thought the disciples by this time would have had a clear grasp of the mission of Jesus. They would have understood he is not going to be king in the sense that they had originally thought. Yet, today they are making a request that is motivated by a worldly desire for position and power. It seems to me that the world of their time is not so different from our day. This world has contaminated us without us realizing it. We want to be on top and we find ways to make sure others are not gaining an advantage over us.
If you think about it, we have learned to compete with others from an early age. How many boys have said to their friends: my father is bigger, faster, stronger than your dad. Oh yea, well my dad can lift a car; oh, yea my dad can lift a bus. This competition or desire to be on top begins early with us. We challenge our friends to races and other feats demonstrating our skills are better than theirs. We want to make sure our grades gain us honor roll status, so we use the internet to help us write that paper that is due instead of relying on our own talent and skill or doing our best even if it will not place us in the top of the class.
Our spirituality is not immune from this desire to be recognized. The Pharisees certainly have taught us that lesson and the Pharisees are alive and well in our parishes today. How can we find that balance between doing God’s will and recognizing our need for recognition does drive us to seek places of honor or recognition? If the disciples after all this time with Jesus have not grasped discipleship means to humbly think of others as being superior to themselves, what chance do we have of learning that lesson?
The statements made by Jesus today as he responds to the request of James and John should give us a reality check. I hear people all the time discussing their parish in terms that shows a prideful superiority. I hear people complaining that their ministry does not get the recognition other ministries are getting from their pastor. I observe ministers of the Eucharist jockeying for positions where they stand next to the priest. Cantor’s complaining because another cantor is more prominently featured by the choir director. Are we serving our community or are we serving ourselves and puffing ourselves up with pride because we are visible in positions of importance?
Why would James and John want those places of honor? Did they believe they earned it; they did remind Jesus in last week’s gospel of all they had given up to follow him? Did they desire those places because they would be next to the seat of power, at the side of a king who would restore Israel to glory? We know they have misinterpreted the mission of Jesus. After his death and resurrection, we know they understood the lessons he is teaching them today and they will become those servants who will drink from the cup he drank. Yet, have we learned there is a greater sacrifice we all must come to understand if we are to be followers of Jesus.
I must admit I see a trend in our society today that seeks the easy path to holiness. I see it in the clergy of today where their time is protected to the detriment of parishioners in need. This includes my brother deacons, so it is not just an issue with priests. I had a wonderful pastor in my early years of ministry who would respond to needs of his parishioners all hours of the day or night without regard to his own need for rest or sleep. The lesson of “I came to serve not to be served” was visible in him and it gave me pause to examine my own responsiveness to the needs of those we are called to serve.
Yet this gospel is not about James or John or us clergy today. It is about everyone who calls themselves a Christian, a Disciple, a Catholic. We should today take the time to examine our willingness to serve without recognition or reward. Do we have to be visible or can we be visible without a desire to be the best lector, cantor, choir member, teacher, youth minister? Can we step aside and let others take on the role of presenting, leading, directing or chairing? Can we work with others side by side with a desire to make our parish a visible presence of Christ’s love available to all who worship with us each week?
The real question is why we haven’t learned the lesson of dying to self and living for the proclamation of the gospel. James and John ultimately learned that lesson because they received the promise of the Father who would change their hearts and bring them understanding. This same promise was made to us; the Holy Spirit whom Christ said would pour the love of God into their hearts and ours and the Spirit would guide us to all truth. They learned by the Spirit revealing to them the reality of finding life by dying to self and living for Jesus Christ.
Today’s gospel is not an easy one to listen to and grasp as meaningful to our lives and yet it is directed at us and how the world has contaminated us to seek to be served rather than serve. We are all called to serve but we must be aware of how our service impacts us as a community and how easy it is for us to get off track because our own need for those positions of honor.