Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; Ps 125; Matthew 20:20-28
The Gospel reading comes from Matthew. Jesus has just made the third prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection. Immediately afterwards, we are told that the mother of James and John approached Jesus with a request. When asked by Jesus what it was, she said: “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right hand and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”
After the first two predictions, the disciples had been very upset at the idea of their Master being put to death by the leaders of their own people. One gets the impression here that they are coming to terms with this warning and are beginning to hear the last part – “he will be raised on the third day”. And it looks as if James and John want to be first in line for the future that Jesus is talking about. What is interesting is that in Matthew, it is the mother who makes the request, while in Mark’s account, it is the two disciples who ask the favour.
In either case, it is clear that they show little real understanding of the spirit of Jesus. He tells them, in answer to the request: “You do not know what you are asking.” And he continues: “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”, clearly referring to his coming suffering and death. Obviously not understanding his real meaning they reply: “We can.” In fact, when the time comes, they will be nowhere within sight, having run for their lives.
But Jesus does say to them, “My cup you will indeed drink but to sit at my right and at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” Yes, when the time comes they will be ready to give their lives for their Master. But, even then, the places on the right and left of Jesus cannot be ‘booked’; they will go to those who most deserve them, to those who are closest in spirit to Jesus.
Not surprisingly, when the other ten disciples heard what was going on they were extremely angry. Not because they were shocked at the request but because it was done behind their backs. Given the chance, they would have done exactly the same.
So Jesus takes them all aside and gives them a lesson in what constitutes true greatness in his world. It is not a question of status or power. Greatness in Jesus’ world, in his Kingdom, comes to those who dedicate themselves most to the well being of their brothers and sisters. And Jesus himself was a living example of this. He, the Son of God, came to serve and not to be served. His whole life up to his last breath was a mission of love and service given unconditionally to every single person. He died in shame and disgrace, a nobody. He totally emptied himself – for us. That is greatness.
Of course, in time James would learn this lesson and would follow his Master in giving his life for the sake of the Gospel.
The First Reading is a wonderful passage from the Second Letter to the Corinthians. Here Paul speaks of the paradox of how the power of Christi’s message is communicated through people who are weak and are the objects of hatred and contempt. “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels”, fragile and easily broken. “We are afflicted in every way…but not driven to despair….struck down but not destroyed…always carrying about in the body the dying Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh… So, death is at work in us, but life in you.”
This is a picture of Paul himself but also of James and of all the martyred missionaries in the history of the Church. They are a stimulus and encouragement for us to follow in their footsteps.