First reading: Isaiah 53:10-11
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 32(33):4-5, 18-20, 22
Second reading: Hebrews 4:14-16
Gospel: Mark 10:35-45
Link to readings.
On the long journey to Jerusalem that has formed the subject of the readings from Mark’s Gospel over the past few Sundays, Jesus has been attempting – with little success – to convey to his disciples some sense of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. Three times he has made clear his destiny to suffer and die. The disciples, who now understand that he is the Messiah (8:29), simply cannot hold together these two truths: that he is Messiah and that he is going to discharge his messianic role through this way of suffering and death. They still cling to the conventional idea that the Messiah will be a righteous, triumphant ruler who will restore to Israel the glories of the Davidic kingdom.
Such an understanding of messiahship lies behind the request of the sons of Zebedee, James and John in today’s Gospel, Mark 10:35-45. Their bid for places on his right and his left signals ambition to be his leading associates at the celebratory banquet of the messianic kingdom. They have not grasped anything of what Jesus has been saying: that the path to any glory leads through suffering and death.
In reply, Jesus uses biblical imagery to hint at what lies in store. ‘Baptism’ does not refer to the Christian sacrament but evokes a biblical metaphor in which going through trials is depicted as a passage through stormy, turbulent waters. Likewise, ‘cup’ is a biblical metaphor for the fate that lies ahead of a person: what he or she will receive from the hand of God (cf. Mark 14:36). Without realising, it seems, what they are letting themselves in for, James and John express their readiness to share Jesus’ ‘cup’. He accepts their declaration and affirms its eventual realisation (something that James at least fulfilled in dying a martyr’s death [Acts 12:2]). But the allotment of places in his kingdom belongs not to himself but to the Father. The explanation shows that he himself is not going to his death in a kind of calculating way that would reason as follows: yes, the suffering will be terrible but it will all have a happy ending (resurrection). No, he is surrendering his future entirely into the hands of the God in whose power and generosity he places complete trust. Those who wish to be his associates must accompany him in this trust as well.
The episode now moves to a second stage with the (understandable) irritation of the remaining disciples at what they see as an attempt on the part of James and John to ‘bag’ the highest places in the messianic kingdom. Their indignation provides Jesus with an opportunity to explain the absolute cleavage between the exercise of leadership in his kingdom and the exercise of authority in the worldly sense, which is clearly what the disciples have in mind. Those who have authority in the kingdoms of earth use their power to turn everything to their own advantage. On the contrary, those who aspire to leadership in the community of the Kingdom must think of themselves as the slaves of all – a complete reversal of values.
BUT TO SERVE
In one of the most memorable statements in the Gospel tradition, Jesus drives the point home, pointing to his own example: ‘the Son of Man has come, not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’ (v 45). The last phrase ‘for many’ echoes the Fourth Servant Song (Isa 52:13 – 53:12), the final sentences of which, appropriately, form the First Reading, Isa 53:10-11). Jesus is going up to Jerusalem to discharge his messianic role, not in the worldly sense of conventional messianic expectation (seen here in the disciples), but in a sense specified by the role spelled out in the ‘Servant’ figure: one who enters into the pain and suffering of the world, who ‘bears’ the sins of others (‘many’ in Semitic idiom, which, of course, means ‘all’), in order to bring about for them freedom and life (‘ransom’). This is the ultimate depth of the ‘service’ that he as Messiah performs – not just for Israel but for the entire world.
The Second Reading, Heb 4:14-16, complements this sense of Jesus’ ‘service’. In their own suffering and difficulty believers should draw confidence from the fact that Jesus, having himself experienced suffering and weakness, is a compassionate advocate before ‘the throne of grace’.
Just as last week’s Gospel placed before the community the need for radical detachment from wealth, so this week’s readings confront it with no less a challenge in the matter of the exercise of power and authority. Both have proven difficult areas for the Church to get right down the ages. We worship Jesus as Lord. But are we so comfortable in venerating – and following – him in his role as Servant of all?
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media