There is a common bit of wisdom in a phrase that most of us have heard at one time or another; sometimes it is spoken in relation to our jobs, or our homes, or even our families. It often centres on our personal wants or desires, our goals or even our prayers: That bit of wisdom is, be careful what you ask for – you just might get it.
This expression suggests that often, there are implications to everything we wish or ask for, and quite often, we don’t understand those implications. It also suggests that with thing or situation we want, we also receive additional work, or duties or responsibilities or difficulties.
Our Gospel illustrates this in the request of the apostles Sts. James and John to Jesus. These two brothers, the Sons of Zebedee ask Jesus to grant them seats at his right and his left when he enters into his glory.
In Jesus time, whenever anyone held a banquet, the places of honour were the seats next to the host. If the person hosting the banquet was someone particularly important, say royalty or a high official, the seats at his right and left hand were reserved for guests of the highest importance; it would be a way for all the others at the feast to see these particular guests and recognize how important (at least in the public eye) they were. James and John are asking for this particular place of honour, of high regard, of Jesus who they believe will come into glory as the Messiah; but the fact that they make this request at all shows they don’t fully grasp the meaning that Jesus is trying to teach them about the true nature of the Messiah; they are apparently caught in the notion of worldly importance and rank and prestige, assuming that this even applies to the Kingdom of God; that the Messiah will be a political and social leader and will establish a kingdom in a similar fashion to a worldly kingdom.
Even the way they make this request shows they don’t really yet understand who Jesus is: they start with ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”…in other words, they aren’t coming to Jesus in humility and offering themselves to His service; they are making a demand – trying to have Jesus bend to their wishes.
He follows with a question of His own; ‘are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Of course, they jump right in and answer this with yes….they say ‘we are able’. Without taking the time to understand what it is that Jesus has even asked them, and without considering what sharing the cup or sharing His baptism really means.
Again in this culture, at a great feast, if a person of high rank hosted it, he would have a special cup, a prized possession. To be invited to drink from this cup was reserved to the most important guests, and was a sign of a high honour being bestowed by the host. It may be that this was the image of sharing the cup that James and John were thinking of.
Biblical scholars and historians tell us that James and John were once disciples of John the Baptist, likely present when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. They would have been aware of the descending of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus and the Father’s voice ‘This is my beloved Son’, so of course, the image of Jesus’ baptism to them could have been one of identifying His greatness as God’s Son.
If these are the two images that were in their minds, and they were asking for recognition and honour, then it’s easy to see why they answered so quickly. It’s easy to see why the other apostles were a bit upset; likely because they were hoping for the same honours themselves. While they have committed themselves somewhat to Jesus at this point in His ministry, they still don’t seem to have understood much of his teaching , or even the prophets who pointed to Him; one of the more notable references to the true mission and nature of the Messiah comes from the prophet Isaiah, who lived about 500 years before Jesus, and who we read in the first reading: ‘it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain, when you make his life an offering for sin,…”…the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” These passages describe what has come to be known as the ‘suffering servant’; that the Messiah, Jesus, is that suffering servant.
But the cup that Jesus is talking about is the cup of his suffering, of service, and the baptism is an entering into His passion and death; because without the passion and crucifixion, there cannot be a resurrection. Without the suffering and the service, there cannot be a place in the Kingdom. This is the sharing of the cup and the baptism that Jesus is referring to; and he makes this point quite clearly when He tells the Apostles as a group, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”
And he really clarifies it with the next sentence: ”the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s a life that all Christians are called into; and quite often we are okay with the first part of that last sentence…not to be served, but to serve’…but we have some difficulty with the second part ‘to give His life as a ransom for many.’
We know that as Christians, when we serve others, it is without expectation of being repaid, or without consideration of gaining some type of advantage over another. Sometimes this is difficult (especially in our materialistic culture) – to simply serve others completely for their benefit, not our own, because this is what is expected of those who ‘put on the mind of Christ’. But the giving of our lives as a ransom for others takes some deeper consideration; maybe it even makes us a little afraid because it sounds like something so far beyond our experience. It sounds like something that is only in the realm of martyrs or great Saints in history. St. James from our Gospel was the first of the Apostles martyred, under Herod Agrippa in 44 AD, and his brother St. John would outlive all the other Apostles, ancient traditions tell us he survived two attempts on his life for witnessing to Jesus.
But parents who set aside their life’s personal ambitions or desires to dedicate themselves to raising their children should be familiar with this ideal. People who put aside their own wants and goals to care for an aging parent have touched on this ideal. Anyone who sets aside their own wants and comforts and dedicates themselves to the service of others as a lifestyle are definitely in touch with this ideal. In their own way, they have given their lives as a ransom for someone else. The goal though, is not to do it so that we are ‘owed’ something – not so that our children or parents or the poor or marginalized somehow are indebted to us, or that they or the Church or God are somehow obligated to us: we do it because we want to – we do it for the love of God and our neighbour as Jesus taught: and in doing that, in that service and giving of self, we enter into the mind of Christ:
This sharing of the cup and baptism of Jesus will not be without trials: Jesus never promised that it would be easy: but he led by example for each of us, and continues to teach and to lead us: in our second reading, St. Paul tells the Hebrews Jesus is able to sympathize with us in our weakness because he is like us in every way except sin: he was tested and hurt as we can be. But he is always there to approach, so that we may receive the grace to help us in times of need; the strength we need to persevere in sharing that cup and baptism. And if we really understand that in our heart of hearts, then it’s okay to ignore that conventional wisdom
We don’t have to be careful what we ask for: because if we ask for the grace and strength to follow Christ, we just might get it;
And we’ll get far more than we could possibly hope for.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!