Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 22, 2006

St. Agnes, Cincinnati


(Based on Isaiah 53: 10-11; Psalm 33; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45)


Over these recent weeks we have been being led through Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus’ unfolding ministry and journey through Galilee. He had ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem, remember, and he was proceeding resolutely toward the culmination of his life.


And in those recent passage we have heard how he began to prepare his disciples for where it was all heading. Immediately prior to today’s account we read that he told them he would be handed over into the power of the Gentiles, be spit upon and scourged and put to death, but would rise again on the third day. This is the third time he’s tried to bring the reality home to them.


You would imagine that upon hearing this shocking warning they would have been anxious and curious, asking questions. Wondering whether they had been seduced and foolishly committed themselves to some charismatic but eventually paper-maché guru.


But no, instead we are treated to this scene which only reveals the disconnect between his efforts and where they actually were in their own journeys.


James and John distance themselves from the rest of the apostles and approach Jesus separately..It’s hard to imagine how outlandish is the request they make of him. It’s not just asking for some particular favor. They want him to give them “whatever we ask of you.” They’re calling for a blank check from Jesus!


Then when he very simply and directly invites them to explain, they present this picture of the two of them sitting at his right and left in the kingdom. The two big-shots, totally full of themselves! We can just see Jesus shaking his head and speaking from a place deep inside himself, “You have no idea what you’re asking.” No idea, not a clue. They haven’t heard a thing he said over these weeks. He’s very conscious of what he is walking into – and they’re focused on themselves and their honor?


And then there takes place a conversation that is not directly recorded in the Gospel. Although we don’t hear it directly, it’s not hard to imagine it from Mark’s concluding comment about it.


We can just hear one or other of them grumbling to the others: “Did you see what those two tried to pull off the other day? God, they really tick me off! They are so pushy, as if the world revolved around them! That just frosts me no end. . . ”

 

We know they talked among themselves because Mark tells us how they felt. The translation we read softens the meaning: they were “indignant.” Another translation gets it more pointedly: “The other ten were furious at them.”


We’ve all been in conversations like that. They’re not a very edifying bunch


But Jesus just does what he so frequently did in such situations. He uses this sorry spectacle to reveal one layer deeper about his messiahship. The teaching he offers is not just a moral exhortation about the disposition that disciples are called to. He’s not just challenging them (and us) to re-think their attitudes, as important as that is for them and us, to see ourselves and act as servants. It’s a revelation os who he is. He’s telling them that he is the fulfillment of a revelation made long ago, in the prophecy of Isaiah that we read first this morning.


He is the one predicted by the prophet: a suffering servant who, through his obedience to the Father, would become release and salvation. It’s a declaration of victory. But a victory achieved through suffering. He will justify “many” – which is always a scriptural way of saying “all.” It will touch his descendant in a long line. Down to us. He is a high priest, as we read in Hebrews, but not one who is distant. He is totally one of us.


So it’s not very difficult to get what the Lord is asking of each of us as individuals. We are called to cultivate a servant mentality, to fulfill our discipleship by serving our neighbors, not ourselves.


But the Lord’s word is always addressed to us as a people; it’s not just a message for us as a collection of individuals only in a one-to-one dialogue with God. So I asked myself this week: What might the Lord be saying to us as a people today? Where are we, and what do we need to hear?


Well, where we are is: on the verge important decisions. In two weeks we will be faced with the act of selecting leaders to whom we will entrust responsibility for guiding our states and national government.


Elections by their nature surface conflicting beliefs and stances among us. We have to choose between different visions and goals, agendas and priorities in response to serious questions and issues.


Debate can be healthy, it’s the foundation of our democratic approach, our assuming responsibility for governing ourselves. Argument and debate can help us to dig beneath easy slogans to find more adequate answers to the needs of our world.


But it all depends on the attitudes we bring to the process. And the risk, all too evident from experience, is that it is so easy for us to become as arrogant as James and John – or as resentful as the other ten.


It’s true that we aren’t asking to sit at the head table in the kingdom – but we do want to win, we want God to show that God is on our side.


And no one has a monopoly on the practice. Democrats do it and so do Republicans; liberals and conservatives just as well.


In our passionate commitment to our ideas and proposals it’s easy to fall into caricaturing or even demonizing the positions of our opponents. Those who don’t agree with us are quickly labeled. If they have a different approach to dealing with unplanned pregnancies they are labeled “baby killers” or, from the other side, just mindless conservative “nut cases.” If you doubt the wisdom of our administration’s Iraq policy you will be charged with just being cowardly: you want to “cut and run;” if you agree with the administration they’ll say you’re a dupe of the Bush war-machine. If you think we need a policy that treats immigrants as human beings you will be charged with abetting illegal behavior and coddling criminals; if you suggest that maybe we should do something to protect our borders, you will be charged with being an isolationist. Does anyone ever think of political adversaries as decent people with a differing point of view?


You know, there is one thing that probably everyone in this congregation would probably agree with, no matter what their political position is. We all hate negative advertising! Don’t we? And the reality is that negative advertising works. It does shape people’s choices or else the candidates wouldn’t waste money on it. Secretly I think we sit there saying “I hate this stuff” – and when the ‘right’ ad comes along we’re saying “Go get ‘em, Dewine! Or “Take that, Clinton or Chabot or whoever.”


I’d suggest that we are called today to pray for all our fellow citizens, for the gift of being able to listen: for the truth that just might be embedded in our opponents’ positions – and the humble willingness to allow a critique of where our emperor’s clothes might just be missing.


There is a final irony attached to this story of James and John. What they specifically requested as to sit “at the right hand and the left” of the Lord. Scripture scholars point out that Mark is a writer very conscious when he uses particular phrases, and the only other place where he refers to being “at the right and the left” is at Calvary, where two criminals are nearest to the suffering Servant of us all.


Amen?