James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” He replied, “What do you wish me to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them 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.”
When I read this Gospel, a quote from Flannery O’Connor comes to mind. “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realized is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
James and John were thinking that Jesus was going to initiate the kingdom of God on earth. Of course, He did. But the expectations of discipleship were quite different than what they were hoping. They were looking forward to Jesus’ glory, so they wanted to secure for themselves a special place next to Jesus in anticipation of His kingly reign. Jesus was quick to inform them that they did not know what they were asking. Because they did not know what they were asking, they had no problem insisting that they could drink from the cup from which Jesus would drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which Jesus would be baptized. They had no idea that that cup and that baptism meant suffering, and even dying, out of obedience to the will of the Father. They had no idea how much discipleship cost. They were looking, if you will, for the big electric blanket of recognition, power, respect, and all the accoutrements that accompany being in a favorable position with the king. They were not expecting the cross.
When the other apostles heard of James and John’s request, they became angry. How could these two be so presumptuous as to attempt to push the others aside and cut to the front of the line? Surely each of them was hoping to secure a position next to Jesus so they could bask in the glow of His glory and enjoy the respect given to one who clearly shared the confidence and favor of the king.
So Jesus called them together. He contrasted the leadership habits of those who rule over the Gentiles with what is to be expected of them. Later, Jesus would send them out with the mission of proclaiming the gospel to all the nations, and promised that they would sit in judgment. But, that leadership was a leadership of service and not power. Authority, yes. But power? No. Those who desired to be great must serve and even make of themselves a slave to all. This slavery would not be one of laboring to fulfill the worldly desires of others, to do whatever others ask of them, but of uncompromising obedience to the will of the Father and to calling others and challenging others and assisting others along the narrow way. All of this in imitation of Jesus, who came to serve and not be served, and to give His life as a ransom for many.
It is easy to read this and think that this is a message for the pope and the bishops and the pastors of the Church. That would be correct, certainly. They are the ones who sit in the place of the apostles, and who assume the responsibility of governing, teaching and sanctifying the community of believers in every age. But, the message is not only for these. We are all called to imitate Jesus in our relations with others, especially those over whom we have authority: our children, especially and, sometimes, our parents in their later years when we have responsibility for them. Also, it is a reminder of how to treat others who assist us through life: the cashier at the store, the teacher at the school, the nurse at the clinic. It is also a reminder of how we are to treat those at work, especially those over whom we have supervision, but also those on our level, our co-workers and everyone with whom we come into contact. Are we gracious? Are we kind? Are we helpful and respectful? Are we grateful? Servant leadership is not only for those in positions of leadership. It is also a call to being a leader in virtue and faithfulness. We are all called to imitate Jesus in service to others.
Humility is not the virtue of considering ourselves less than others and undeserving of their respect. It is the virtue of recognizing our dignity as children of God, co-heirs with Christ to the kingdom. As children of God, as co-heirs with Christ, we are called then to recognize Christ in all others, and to give Him there the respect that is His due.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.