The Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

[Cycle B Scripture Readings: Is. 53:10-11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45]

We like to think that in our sophisticated and adult age, we have gone far beyond the need for myths that more primitive peoples seemed to need. Yet, a little reflection reveals that myths are alive and well in our society. In fact, we still need myths to give a sense of coherence and meaning in our lives. Myths communicate values and motivation that come from deep but usually unconscious levels of our self. In them we experience a sense of unity with one another and with nature.

We have relocated many of our myths from religious spheres to more secular ones. We don’t question that capitalism and democracy are beneficial for the whole globe; progress and success are natural goals and values; social mobility is a sign of advancement; winning and being “on top” justify any necessary effort. Many of our modern myths share a common bond with more “primitive” ones. They exhibit an “ascensional” motif. A desired goal is to be “on top” — of a mountain or a corporate pyramid. The desire is to break with the normal limits and constraints of human existence. “Salvation” is precisely freedom from limitations and superiority over natural processes or other people. Money gives one freedom to “be all you can be.” Power gives you the ability to control, to plan, to protect. Honor and prestige guarantee affirmation and recognition. Even “knowledge is power” and provides a sense of advantage and superiority. That’s simply the “way it is” says the myth. Yes, myth is alive and well in our society.

To really hear today’s Gospel is to be shocked by Jesus’ confronting our taken-for-granted myths. It’s hard to take the Gospel seriously. In fact, we haven’t really done so yet. Chapter 72 of the Rule of St. Benedict tells us monks that we “should each try to be the first to show respect to the other… earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” Unless I’ve been missing something, we are a long way from implementing this celestial courtesy.

Jesus has been laying a heavy assault on our anthropology, on what it means to be human, throughout this chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel. He has insisted on fidelity and chastity in relationship in discussing marriage; children who simply don’t count in society are those for whom the Kingdom is meant; total keeping of the Law and the comfort of wealth don’t overcome the lack of freedom of spirit which poverty offers. And now, honor and position are to be avoided in preference for service and having no “place.”

When James and John approach Jesus, they are blatantly manipulative. “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask.” This should sound familiar, because it is our usual approach to God, to other people, to the world. “I want you to do whatever I ask.” Surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t rebuff them. Instead, he graphically exemplifies what real service means. He is attentive to them, he yields and surrenders himself to them, he creates an interpersonal space in which they can be themselves and reveal their desires. He is personally meeting them at a level of being. This is different from our usual definition of service which ideally is fast, frictionless and fault-free. Service is providing the product, the answer, the solution. Give me the food, fix my computer, open the door. The attention and care of real service go far deeper.

“What is it that you want me to do for you?” An awesome question to be asked by Christ. Jesus will ask it again a few verses later in this chapter when he is addressed by a blind man. “Lord, that I may see.” A better answer than the power-jockeying one of James and John. Real sight would enable us to see through the myths and illusions that enslave us to our rituals of unhappiness, and might even free us to be attentive and yield ourselves in care for others. Jesus doesn’t put down the desire of the disciples, but he transforms it into the possibility of an experience of the Kingdom. You will drink of my cup and be baptized with the baptism with which I will be baptized. What he is offering them is a share and identification with his own life, with his own mission from the Father, with his own vision. To share in the cup is to share fellowship in his suffering and obedience to the will of his Father. An obedience which is the expression of his intimacy and personal devotedness to his Father which transcends all other human concerns. To be immersed in his baptism is to be immersed in the suffering, the tragedies , the pain, the losses that are woven through the processes at work in bringing humanity and the cosmos into the Kingdom. Christ’s baptism was the expression of his solidarity, of his compassion and sympathy for the struggle of humanity to be reborn into the new creation he inaugurates.

Jesus is the servant of this new creation and covenant struggling to be reborn. He poured out his life as a ransom to liberate his people to live a new life in the midst of human history and creation. Service is the mode of life of one who experiences this freedom. This is understood only by those are no longer blinded by illusions and myths of self-advancement, but who realize that in suffering and service they are joined with Christ who has penetrated into the heavens and enabled us to stand before the Holy Presence of God’s mercy. Christ continues his mission of serving through those who share in the covenant of his cup and suffering. Lord, that we may see.