The Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Is 53:10-11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45]
A wealthy woman attending a banquet in the White House was sipping wine with one of the foreign ambassadors. She wore a brooch with an exceptionally beautiful diamond in the center. It was huge, bigger than any the ambassador had ever seen! When he praised the extraordinary beauty of her necklace, she replied, “This is the famous Klapp diamond. It is one of the largest in the world. But it comes with an insufferable burden.” Curious, he asked politely, “What is this terrible burden that comes with such a valuable diamond?” She replied, “Mr. Klapp.”
The apostles James and John were not burdened by wealth. Unlike the rich young man who went away sad because he was attached to his diamonds and other possessions, they had a different kind of yoke strangling their throats, a craving for honor and power: “Teacher, … Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” In other words, “Let us be first among those who drink wine from the royal cup at the King’s banquet.” They were like kids pushing to be first in line.
Once a mother of twin boys, who were seven years old, was making blueberry pancakes for her hungry sons. Ryan and Shawn began arguing about who would get the first serving. Seeing an opportunity to teach them the Christian way to behave toward others she said, “If Jesus were here, he would say, ‘Please, Mom, serve my brother first,’ and then Jesus would wait patiently for his turn to come.” For a moment both boys were silent, then Ryan smiled at his brother and said, “Okay, Shawn, you be Jesus.”
James and John did not have a child’s immaturity to excuse their desire to be first. But they did have a child’s forgetfulness. Earlier on their journey to Jerusalem, when the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, Jesus taught them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” It was a lesson in humility and service they did not remember.
They heard what they wanted to hear. Taking Jesus at his word when he revealed that, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” they said shamelessly, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Instead of following the Master’s example, they tried to take advantage of him. “You be Jesus. Serve me.”
Once a priest went into a Washington D.C. barbershop for a haircut. Afterward, when he took out his wallet, the barber said, “No charge, Father, I consider it a service to the Lord.” Next morning the barber received a warm note of thanks along with a rosary blessed by the Pope. On another day a police officer came for a haircut and when he went to pay, the barber said, “No Charge, Officer, I consider it a service to the community.” Later a delivery boy brought a box of a dozen donuts to the shop with a note of gratitude from the officer. Not long afterward a senator came in for a haircut and the barber said, “No charge, Senator, I consider it a service to my country.” Next morning, when the barber arrived at his shop, he found a dozen senators waiting for a free haircut.
There was something far more insufferable about James and John. Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. He tried to talk with his disciples about the intolerable weight burdening his heart. Three times he tolled the bell prophesying his Passion: “We are going up to Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be handed over to be condemned, mocked, spit upon, scourged, and put to death, but after three days he will rise.” They didn’t listen to the bell. They didn’t respond to the distress in Jesus’ voice. All they heard was the pouring of wine into their silver cups at the royal banquet. The agony of Jesus did not get past the yoke of desire for power and honor covering their ears.
“We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” That’s the ultimate form of insufferable self-centeredness: not, “Thy will be done,” but, “My will be done. You be Jesus. Serve me.” Yet, for all his inner distress, Jesus responds with humility and kindness like the good servant he is, “What do you want me to do for you?” St. Benedict urges monks, especially the procurator of the monastery, to put on the kindness of the servant Jesus. He writes, “If goods are not available to meet a request, let the procurator offer a kind word in reply, for a kind word is better than the best gift,”. It was the humility of Jesus that prepared the apostles to understand not only the bell that tolled for him, but the first tolling of the bell for themselves. They had their eyes on a banquet cup full of spiced wine, but Jesus promises them a bitter cup of suffering. Even with the wrong question bursting from their pride, Jesus does not put them down, but draws them closer to accepting the reality of suffering discipleship. Jesus served by bearing our guilt on his shoulders and giving up his life to save ours. His suffering broke the deadly yoke of sin strangling our necks. Seeing Jesus first-in-line to drink the cup of suffering for us, James and John began to understand God’s love, God’s passion for us. Jesus serves by dying in our place because he loves, and his suffering love awakens love in his disciples.
James was first-in-line of the apostles to suffer martyrdom. And John was last-in-line of the Twelve to die for Christ as an exile in a foreign land. They drank deeply from the chalice of Christ’s blood, his cup of suffering, before receiving the place prepared for them in the kingdom of heaven.
The bell continues to toll for Christ’s disciples. Have we awakened to live in the humility and kindness of suffering love? Will we be Jesus for others? Or, are we more often insufferable?
The Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Is 45:1,4-6; I Thess 1:l-5b; Mt 22:15-21]
For the sake of the two or three people in this building who have NOT heard this story, I am going to bore the rest of you by telling it now. A man had an accident and fell off a steep cliff. As he was falling, he managed to grab hold of a branch sticking out of the rock and caught himself. But his arm was getting weaker and weaker and he looked with dread down the steep chasm to the rocks way below. He called out in earnest prayer, looking up to heaven: “If there is anyone up there, help me.” A deep voice came from the midst of thunder: “Trust me, and let go of the branch.” The man listened, looked down again at the chasm, and called out again: “Is there anyone else up there?”
This story resonates with the experiences many of us have in which we are confronted with choices which seem like no real choice at all. They don’t offer a solution to our problems. Either way we go, we lose. Taking a cool, rational approach and gathering piles of evidence don’t help: they only intensify our anxiety. We are confronted with polarities we never thought we would have to choose between. Do we stay with a job, with a relationship, with a commitment? It once seemed so logical and hopeful, but now it is sapping our strength and smothering our life. We find these impasses either totally frustrating or else we find ourselves being pushed to a deeper level within ourselves to find an answer. The alternatives seem to be either a radical break or simply staying with the situation. But even if we become free with the radical break, we feel we have lost some vital connection and belonging, and have become isolated and alienated. If we stay on and keep on and compromise, hoping that maybe some day things will change, we lose our vitality and our heart is not in what we are doing.
The Pharisees and Herodians in today’s Gospel embody just such a polarity confronting Jesus. They hoped to entrap him in his words: both in the sense of public indictment and in the sense of the trap of verbal rationalizations which keep us going around in vicious circles of hopelessness. The Pharisees represent the radical break, the uncompromising adherence to clear values. For them, the control of the Romans was a sacrilegious intrusion upon the people of Israel. The Herodians were monarchists: those who found it quite possible to compromise with the rulers and who enjoyed the order, stability, and prosperity they brought. This is not a trivial scene. It is not merely a display of Jesus’ cunning and wit in escaping a verbal trap. “Our rabbi is smarter than your rabbi.”
This scene comes at an intensification of the conflict between Jesus and the leaders of the people. Jesus must be removed – for the sake of peace and for the integrity of the Law. More, it is a cosmic conflict between the powers of this world and the coming of God’s Kingdom. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” The Pharisees and Herodians let themselves become instruments of the power of evil which is in radical antagonism to the entrance of God’s rule. Jesus saw their malice. A Heavy word. He saw the complicity with evil which was operating under the cloak of flattery, compliments, and sincere questioning. The Pharisees and Herodians were natural enemies, but they became allies in their opposition to Jesus. It is an interesting and sobering footnote to be reminded that our minor accommodations to evil can make us accomplices in an evil potentially larger and more insidious than our own intentions. “Who will see it? No one will ever know.”
The Pharisees and Herodians became instruments of that same Satan who earlier tempted Jesus to “fall down and worship me and I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth.” It is the chronic and universal temptation to use power to achieve stability, prosperity, and peace.. It is the voice of the diabolus, the “splitter”, who would say you can split your cosmic allegiances into two kingdoms, one for religion and the other for politics. Inevitably, we find ourselves worshipping “strange and false gods” God alone is to be worshipped. “I am the Lord and there is no other.” Separating the worlds of faith and social life seems to relieve our anxiety and the pressures. But it is no solution. We are pushed to answer our dilemmas form a deeper level. At that level, we discover that the whole of our life and all its parts are encompassed by a reality which carries them all without submerging them or subsuming them into its own dynamic. It is this encompassing reality which sustains them and allows them to function in their own spheres. We don’t deal with questions of economy, politics, or society apart from this reality. The questions, problems, and dilemmas remain,; but they are coped with in the context of this universally sustaining reality – the mystery of God.
Jesus directed those who confronted him to look at the image on the coin in question. The image of Caesar on the coin indicated that it was meant to be returned to him. How do we discern the image which tells us what it is we are to render to God? Where do we find this image? It is not the image of a coin which must be standardized to be recognized. The image on the coin must be fixed and uniform. Its value lies not in itself, but derives solely from the power that legitimizes it. It is replaceable and meant for exchange and commerce. The image of God, on the other hand, lies at the root of creation and in the heart of each human person. The Judeo-Christian tradition has insisted on the unique and sacred quality of each person, flowing from creation in God’s own image. This image is a free and creative capacity, recognizing an inherent and inalienable value in each life which cannot be exchanged or sold. Its reality grows in the self-giving of love and service.
The clearest manifestation of this image has indeed been God’s own son. The problems and dilemmas of life push us to a deeper place where we can approach this “teacher who is truthful and teaches the way of God in truth.” We are finally called to find this image of God as he gives his life through the humility, obedience, and service of the cross out of love for all those who are precious to him. This is rendering to God what belongs to God. Anything less can be rendered to the current Caesar or just left to gather dust on the ash heap of history.