Not to dominate, but to give life

Listen to mp3 file (12:47)
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Oct. 18, 2015
Isa 53:10-11; Ps 33; Heb 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

What do you truly need? And what does the world really need? These questions seem to be implicit in Jesus’ question to James and John—“What do you wish me to do for you?”—and in their response, their belief about what they and the world really need. Which is: for them to be in charge.

St. Mark relates to us that this conversation takes place as Jesus and his disciples are making a journey to Jerusalem and getting close to their destination. Three times Jesus has told his disciples about his Passion: that he will be handed over, and condemned, and killed, and then will rise on the third day. The third time occurred right before this conversation. And when they reach Jerusalem, it will be the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday: these actual events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are only days away.

What a moment in time! And yet it is clear that James and John are not getting the message; or perhaps are having a very hard time accepting it, taking it in, understanding it, embracing it. They are hanging onto the more common idea that the Messiah—and they have come to believe that Jesus is that Messiah—will be a great military leader who will overthrow the Romans, reestablish the independence of the Kingdom of Israel, and set all things right through his just rule. And what they need, they think, is just to be there ruling beside him; what the world needs is for them, in their strength and power, to make things right.

Now we know well that that isn’t Jesus’ plan. We know that his plan is to be crushed, to be afflicted, to bear our guilt, to give his life as an offering for us—to suffer and die and rise from the dead. We know that. But do we understand it? Or, inside our hearts, do we agree with James and John? Why is it that Jesus intends to give to the point of death, rather than taking charge and knocking heads?

Let’s answer this first on the big, overall level, and then on the personal level. On the big level, this week, at daily Mass, we have been reading through the first few chapters of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. And we have heard him describe how the Law that God gave to his People under the Old Covenant—in which he revealed so many wonderful truths about who he is and how he wanted his People to live—was very good, but it was not enough. Merely telling us truths and telling us what to do didn’t have the power to do what needed to be done! And so God made a New Covenant, as the Father sent the Son, as Jesus poured himself out, both to make things right with regard to the offense that our sin had given to the Father, and to give to us his own flesh and blood, his own life, the grace of his very self, in order to transform us within.

The Son of Man came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And what’s true on the big level is also true on the personal level. James and John need so much more than to be in charge. They need to be healed, to be washed clean, to be set free. They need to receive Jesus’ own life so that they may be filled and transformed. And they also need to be giving that same life to the world. They need this, and the world needs this: not a relationship of domination, in which they try to make the world do certain things; but a relationship of serving and giving, in which the world receives through them the grace that it needs to be made whole again and to be able to change.

Let’s consider what that looks like, in two stories. First, my dad has worked for many years in a Protestant college and seminary; and he has told me that, as a new crop of young students arrives each year, sometimes among them there will be one or more who are problems: who don’t obey the rules, but disrespect the professors and bother their fellow students. But what changes them is when they come to experience, in an act of reaching out to others in an effort of ministry or service, God touching others with his grace; when they see others transformed by God’s grace that came through them. Then they are changed. Because that is what they needed, and what James and John needed: not to be in charge, but to be loving channels of God’s grace and mercy to someone else.

And we actually have been witnessing this happening on the world stage, haven’t we? Because we see it in Pope Francis. Various people have observed that the Pope appears to have the spiritual gift of mercy: which means that, when he encounters someone who is experiencing suffering or need, he is able to reach out in just the right action to give comfort and help—and this is not just in the ordinary sense of giving mercy, which all of us need to do, but in the special sense of having been given the spiritual gift of mercy, such that the Holy Spirit works in his heart and actions to make his acts of mercy extraordinary effective. And so we observe, on the one hand, the great life and joy that Pope Francis experiences when he is reaching out to someone in mercy; and, on the other, the great effect in the one who receives it; and we from the outside can see all of this taking place, God reaching out through the Pope, and the other receiving it, and we praise God for this work of his in the world.

That is what James and John needed: not to be in charge, but to receive the grace of Christ and be channels of giving it in turn to the world that so needs it. And that is what we also need.

But if we examine our lives, what do we see?

  • Do we find that we are sometimes burdened or overwhelmed with things that we think we need to do? Do we feel inadequate or condemned when we don’t live up to these standards? But who is requiring this of us—Jesus? Or ourselves? Or a voice out of the past? Perhaps what Jesus is telling you that you need is to let go of these burdens and receive the grace that he wants to give you: to draw near to him in times of prayer, and meditation on Scripture, and Eucharistic Adoration, and Mass, and confession, to receive the healing, freeing, strengthening, washing, that he wants to give you, and that you need.
  • And what about how we relate to other people—such as your spouse or children, your co-workers or fellow students, or others? Do you find yourself considering them with a demanding attitude or impatience? Are you irritable with them, or critical? But why? Are you thinking that you can simply require things of them in the style of the Law—when what they need is to receive the gifts of grace that God wants to give you through them, in order to be strengthened and grow and change? What they need from you is patience and gentleness, kindness and generosity—and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).

This is what James and John needed; and what we need, and what the world needs. The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

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