Jesus gives us the gift we really need

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Oct. 17-18, 2009
Isa 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; Heb 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

This is an important weekend, this third weekend of October. That is because there are just three weeks to go until our annual parish Christmas Bazaar! In fact, when Wendy and I were plotting out the publicity for the Bazaar last month, we looked at this point with three weeks to go and said: We’ll need to be making a final push then for donations and volunteers; and also beginning to encourage everyone to come to the Bazaar and to bring their friends. And of course we’ll use flyers and signs and announcements—but we need something more creative. After all, the Bazaar is an event of cosmic importance. So let’s—change the weather. That weekend, to get everyone’s thoughts on Christmas, we’ll make it as cold as December for about five days—cold outside, cold inside the buildings—and snow flurries. Whoops, sorry about the snow. I guess we missed our target by a few degrees, and so we got drizzle instead!

The Bazaar, and the weather, and the calendar remind us that it is now just two months and one week until Christmas Day. And that makes us think of the usual giving of gifts. At least, the most responsible among us are working on their gifts. But sooner or later, we all will be asking: what gifts can I give to those I love? What gifts will communicate that I love them? What gifts will delight them and bring them joy? And even—can I give them any gifts do they really need?

That last one is tricky. After all, if I need something, I will be sure to spend my money to buy it first—not wait to see if someone will give it to me at Christmas. But what if what I need is something I can’t afford? Or something that can’t be bought? What if I don’t know what I need? Or what if I do know it, but I keep buying something else instead, in a sort of addiction?

In fact, what is it that you or I really need? How will we get it? What will it cost? Will someone give it to us?

In our gospel reading today, we hear that two of the disciples, James and John, ask Jesus for what they think they really need. Our reading comes right after the third time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells his disciples that he will have to suffer and die, and then rise from the dead. And all three times the disciples don’t get it. The first time [8:27-38] we heard about five weeks ago: Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus predicted his Passion, and Peter tried to correct him. The second time [9:30-37], we heard a week later; then, the disciples responded by discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. And now, a third time, Jesus has just told the Twelve that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise.”

And James and John respond by asking him for what they think they need. And what is that? Power; authority; honor. They ask, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

James and John have come to believe in Jesus enough that they know that some sort of kingdom is in his future. They’re not sure what all this talk of suffering and death is about; but they are sure that some sort of great kingdom is ahead. And the gift that they want from Jesus is to be at the top of his kingdom—second only to him, at his right and at his left—with everyone else—everyone!—having to do what they say and look up to them and give them honor. This is what James and John think they need. They can’t buy it themselves; but they think that Jesus can give it to them. And so that’s what they want from him for Christmas this year: to be in charge of his Messianic kingdom.

It’s not an unusual request. The other ten became indignant when they heard this—because they wanted the same thing. In fact, I think that every man and woman that has walked this planet since Adam and Eve has wanted this same thing, in one way or another: to be god-like in knowledge and power and honor; and to make themselves so by building themselves up, on the backs of anyone around them, if they could manage it. Everyone who has gotten half a chance has tried to do it. And now the disciples see a chance like no one else ever had: rather than trying to climb the ladder to get on top, they can just ask the guy who could give it to them. And so James and John asked for it.

And once again Jesus has to explain: You don’t get it; that isn’t what my kingdom is all about; that isn’t what my being a king is all about. Yes, you see examples all around you of rulers lording it over people, and making their authority 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.”

For Jesus, greatness and leadership and authority weren’t about, How many people can I get to serve me?, but, How many people can I serve? Not about putting others in his service, but about putting himself in others’ service.

So that’s pretty clear, right? Jesus is like John F. Kennedy saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And so Jesus founds the Peace Corps, and makes his disciples members of it, and sends them off around the world to do good, because, really, James and John don’t need anything at all—they just need to go out and serve. Right?

Wrong. We must never fall for the danger of seeing Jesus as just one more social reformer; and we must never think of his message as nothing more than a bunch of moral imperatives that we can do in our own strength.

James and John really did need to receive a gift—something they could not obtain themselves, which only Jesus could give them. But it wasn’t what they asked for. What was it?

The clue comes in this final phrase: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve—and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus came to serve them—his disciples, and James and John—and us. He came to give his life. As what? A ransom. The imagery here is of someone being held captive, or someone who is a slave, who could be freed by paying a price, a ransom.

What was it that held us captive and enslaved? It was our sin—the original sin of our first parents, ratified by our own personal sin. Sin had shattered the original harmony in which we were originally created, and left us with division within ourselves; between ourselves and others; between us and God. James and John had asked for ultimate power—but that would have only fortified this division. That was not the way to ransom, to redemption.

Instead, God the Son had become man, to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would be mocked, spit upon, scourged, and put to death on a cross. Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection had many effects; and one of these effects was to touch our hearts, to reveal to us the true love of God for each of us, and the true horror of the sin that separates us from him. Jesus would undo the fear, and the pride, and the greed, and the desire to dominate, at work in our hearts.

And he would pour his grace out through the sacraments. He asks James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They too quickly say yes, and we know that they were thinking only of the royal chalice. We know, as they did not, of the suffering that Jesus would undergo. And we also know about the amazing grace of the sacraments. We know that in baptism

  • they would be cleansed of original sin and personal sin;
  • they would be given sanctifying grace, God’s own life, in their souls;
  • they would be adopted as sons of God;
  • they would receive an indelible character imprinted on their souls, conforming them to Christ;
  • they would be given the Holy Spirit, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

And we also know about the cup. We know that in the Eucharist, Christ would give them his own Body to eat and the cup of his blood to drink. And he would make this sacrifice present at every Mass throughout time, so that they could share in it, share in offering him and also offer themselves united with him as an offering of love and praise and thanksgiving to God the Father.

And so, in this baptism and in this cup, what does Jesus offer us? Freedom from sin, and reconciliation with God. And transformation, a spring of living water welling up within us [John 4:14], so that we do not need to take from others and lord it over them, but instead can give to them as servant of all. This is the gift that we truly need, which we cannot afford on our own and which only he can give.

And that’s a gift that I don’t think we will find in any of the baskets in the Silent Auction at our Christmas Bazaar. But, thankfully, Jesus’ gift is something that we can receive at our parish without cost, every week—even every day! But for all of our lesser needs, I’m sure that our Bazaar will have everything we could ever hope for.

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Published in: on October 18, 2009 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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