Gospel Lectio Divina: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 17, 2021
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?" They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left."
Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can."
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 or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
“What do you wish me to do for you?”
Upon reading this, one may think Jesus should have responded more firmly with something like, “Who are you to ask me to do whatever you ask of me?” But this would not be in line with what Christ has taught. He said, “I assure you, whatever you ask of the father, he will give you in my name” (John 16:23). In the eyes of secular society, to lead means to delegate. It means others are under the leader’s command and must do what the leader says. In God’s kingdom, the leader leads by example and helps others follow that example by giving them what they need to do so. Jesus came to serve, not to rule. The sincerity of his offer, however, is stipulated by the need for the one asking to be doing the Father’s will.
"You do not know what you are asking.”
Because James’ and John’s request was not in line with the Father’s will, Jesus could not grant it. One can meditate on whether God could have granted John’s and James’ but perhaps chose not to. Being God, he can do whatever he wants, correct? Not exactly. That was the mistake the nominalists made. Nominalism teaches that God can change his nature if he simply wills it, that he can make something so by simply saying it is so, even if it contradicts the laws of nature and morality he has already set in place. So, in this heresy, God can declare tomorrow that it’s immoral to eat chicken and it would be so. But this is not how God works. God cannot act against who he is, and he is the same for all eternity. So he cannot act against reason, charity, truth, and anything that is perfect. He is perfect, so to act in any way contrary to who he is would be to act imperfectly, and if he did that he would not be God. So Jesus’ promise that he will grant whatever we ask of him does indeed have its limitations, but those limitations come from our fallen will and our misunderstandings of what is best; by best I mean the wisest, completely good choice. James’ and John’s desire to sit at Christ’s right and left was not in accord with God’s will, because it was not in accord with the way God’s kingdom works. James and John wanted honor and prestige for following Jesus. This is not the way leadership works in God’s kingdom. James and John, who were leaders among the apostles since they were in Jesus’ inner circle, had to first learn to serve before being granted any position of honor. Jesus also reveals that there are parts of the Father’s will that even he does not know. For serving God, James and John may very well have been seated at the right and left of Jesus in heaven. But at this point in the Gospel, that honor was contingent upon their willingness to serve being stronger than their desire to lead and reign. They had to be willing to be last before they could be first.
They said to him, "We can."
James and John commit to undergo their passion. James would experience a brutal martyrdom, as did all the other apostles except John. John’s passion would be a different type, but still difficult. He was imprisoned on the island of Patmos, but the reason God spared him from martyrdom is clear, as he would become the author of the Gospel of John and Revelation in his later years.
When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.
Jealousy is an ugly thing. One may wonder why we even bother with it. Why does it matter so much who we are in the eyes of someone else? Why do the other 10 apostles care so much about who they are in Jesus’ eyes? It seems as if Jesus is giving James and John a special place among the apostles. Indeed, he is. Along with Peter, they were among the three in Jesus’ inner circle and they played very important roles in the Early Church. But so did the other ten. In telling James and John that they will share in Jesus’ cup, Jesus is not saying the other apostles won’t experience their own passion. The Lord hates dishonest weights and scales (Proverbs 20:10). He does not want the apostles to compare their roles to each other. A quarterback’s role on a football team may seem to be the most important, but his role would be nearly impossible without those of the other 10 players. The whole team would just fall apart and be incapable of competing. It’s the same way with the apostles. Jesus needed all 12 to spread the gospel, even if he had to give three of them more prominent positions than the others. It never meant that the other 10 were any less in dignity, or that Jesus loved them any less. God gives order to everything he creates, and when it comes to social order leaders are necessary. But the role of the leader should not be envied. It is a trying role that requires great sacrifice. This is why Jesus says “The cup that I drink, you will drink.” He is foreshadowing his passion when he says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as You will”. Here again Jesus is speaking about the Father’s will, and applying the same principle to his own desire that he applied to the request of the disciples. These are battles between human wills and the divine will. Jesus is leading by example, showing how we can defeat our selfish will in favor of God’s will, even when it requires complete sacrifice.
whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant
Christ is establishing the kingdom of God, a kingdom where the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Matthew 20:16). A good leader is reluctant to lead because he understands the gravity of the task. That is why popes and other leaders in the Church should never campaign. They are selected by their superiors, who are selected by their superiors, who ultimately ought to be selected by the Holy Spirit. When this practice overflows into the secular realm it is a good thing. A good politician understands that his first duty is to serve the people he represents. Even in monarchies, this ought to be understood. The dawn of Christian civilization, therefore, saw the dwindling of empires where the emperor had absolute power and was often seen as a god, and the rise of monarchies where the king was seen as chosen by God to serve the people as Christ serves and sacrifices for the Church. While Christ may seem to be addressing only his apostles in this passage, the way he led the apostles became the prototype for many civilizations, and the Christian family.
Lord of all,
You are omnipotent, and yet you are most content to serve. We praise you for your wisdom and goodness. The best we can do is imitate you, so teach us how to serve more genuinely, more humbly. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
To follow Christ, I must listen to what he tells me. This is so obvious, and yet still so often forgotten. I am constantly tempted to put God in a box, and that box is my head. In a way, I answer my own prayers and don’t look for God’s answers. Listening requires sincere, genuine engagement in whatever the other person is saying. Do I sincerely and genuinely listen to God’s voice when I read Scripture? If James and John were listening to Christ’s message about how to be first in God’s kingdom, they would not have been concerned about whether they would be at Christ’s right and left in heaven. They would have first looked for how they could serve, not what reward they could get in return, and then they would have left the rest up to God. When the word of God enters our hearts, it lives through us and animates our actions. Am I listening to Jesus that much?
Kilby is a freelance writer from New Jersey and managing editor of Catholic World Report.