In the Sunday Gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of crosses and crowns. The apostles have only crowns in mind, but Jesus knows the price of the crown. So, He must teach them and us that crowns—the things we value most—come only through the cross.
It may help to review the context of this Gospel. Jesus is making His final journey to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the cross and has already announced this to His disciples on two occasions. Throughout Jesus’ final journey, the apostles prove unwilling and/or incapable of grasping what He is trying to teach them.
This Sunday’s Gospel is a perfect illustration of a common biblical theme that I refer to as the inept response. It is a common situation in the Gospels wherein Jesus presents a profound teaching, yet within a matter of verses or sometimes even just a few words, the apostles demonstrate that they have absolutely no understanding of what He has just told them.
You may recall that in the Gospel readings for the previous two Sundays, the Lord gave critically important teachings. Two weeks ago, he stood a young child in their midst and spoke of the child as being truly great. He also warned that we must be able to receive the Kingdom of God like a little child. Last week, He warned of the pernicious effects of wealth and spoke about how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Despite these recent teachings, this Sunday’s Gospel opens with James and John (and later all the apostles) wishing honors upon themselves. They want seats at the head of the table, high offices in the Kingdom, which they still conceive of in worldly terms. Never mind that Jesus has taught them that the place of honor is not at the head or even the foot of the table; the honor is upon those who serve those at the table.
The apostles (and we) just don’t understand, no matter how clear Jesus is or how often He repeats Himself.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages.
Misplaced Priorities – The Gospel begins in this way: 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.”
James and John ask an inept question and even demand to sit in places of honor. This is a misplaced priority. Their understanding of the place of honor is worldly. Further, they want to move to the head of the table. They want the Lord to grant them this honor. Even in a worldly way of thinking, places of honor must usually be earned. Although some people are born into royalty, most attain leadership and honors only after years of effort. Thus, even from a worldly point of view, James and John are being overly bold, exhibiting little understanding that prior to honors comes labor, comes the earning of those honors. They want the crown without the cross.
Major Price – The Lord Jesus replies 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?”
Was Jesus astonished, amused, or saddened? It is not easy to say, but clearly James and John had absolutely no idea what they were asking—and neither do we. Too often we want blessings, honors, or seats in high places, but give little thought to the crosses that are necessary to get there and to stay there.
Those who finally attain leadership often understand what a cross it is. It can be lonely. There are many pressures and long hours of toil. True leadership has its benefits, but it is hard. Most leaders know also the sting of criticism.
There is an old joke among bishops that goes something like this: “When a man becomes a bishop, two things are certain: he will never again have a bad meal, and he will never again hear the truth.” Leaders in many other walks of life can relate to this.
The Lord Jesus wonders whether James and John have any idea what they are really asking. His question is also poignant, for He has been trying to teach them of the passion, the pain, the crucifixion that awaits Him, and which even He, the Lord of glory, must endure before entering into His glory. No, they do not know what they are asking; they just don’t get it.
This must make the Lord very sad. Sometimes we underestimate the suffering Jesus endured long before the garden of Gethsemane that fateful night, when His passion began in earnest. Prior to that evening, the Lord endured a kind of death by a thousand cuts: enemies trying to trap Him, crowds wanting medical miracles but no true healing, strident and judgmental religious leaders, and disciples who walked away from Him as he taught about the Eucharist. Even the Twelve, to whom He looked for friendship, seemed completely disconnected from what He was trying to teach them. He also knew that one of them would betray Him, another would deny Him, and all but one would abandon Him, never making it to the foot of the cross. Oh, the grief that they gave the Lord!
Oh, the grief that we continue to offer up! How we continue to offend His external glory and be difficult cases for Him! How easy it is for us to be hardheaded and stubborn, to have necks of iron and foreheads of brass! No, we should not be so quick to scorn the apostles because we do the same things.
The Lord can only remind them and us of the monumental price, the true cost. No cross, no crown! Ultimately, Heaven costs everything, for we must leave this world behind to reach it. The Easter Sunday of glory, whether in this world or in the world to come, is accessed only by a journey through Good Friday.
It is a major price, but it is one that James and John seem to dismiss. They simply state, categorically, that they are able to drink the cup that the Lord drinks and to be baptized into His death. They have no idea what they’re talking about, however, and neither do most of us.
Medicinal Prescription – The text continues, 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.”
Thus, the other apostles join in the inept response by becoming indignant that James and John are trying to get special dibs on the seats of honor. Their indignity simply shows that they also have no idea what the Lord is talking about.
The Lord tries to bring the big picture of the cross down to earth. He tries to make it plain, saying that the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all, indeed the slave of all. It is not those who sit at the head of the table, the foot of the table, or any place at the table at all who are the greatest; the greatest are those who serve at the table.
Do they understand? Probably not, but neither do we. It takes most of us a lifetime before we finally get it through our thick skulls that the point in life is not to have the corner office with the view. We have everything upside down, backwards. We are not rich in what matters to God. We think of bank accounts, prestigious addresses, the square footage of our houses, high salaries, and impressive titles—not service.
We may be on our death beds before we finally realize that the greatest people in our lives are those with the ministry of care, those who feed us, those who change our bandages and give us basic care.
Like the apostles, we can be so foolish. At our final judgment, God will not care about the square footage of our house, our titles, or our worldly honors. What will capture His attention is the times when we served, when we gave a cup of cold water to the thirsty or food to the hungry, when we instructed the ignorant, when we prayed for the dying, when we cared for the needs of the poor. He will look for the calluses and the wounds of our service. He will listen for our proclamation of His Kingdom. He will tell us that what we did for the least of our brothers, we did for Him.
Don’t miss the point: there is no crown without the cross. In the Kingdom, honors and crowns are reserved for those who serve, who take up the cross of washing the feet of others, of going to the lowest of places.
In the Gospel this Sunday, the Lord speaks of crosses and crowns—in that specific order. We will not, we cannot, gain any crown in His Kingdom without being baptized into His death, into His cross, into the humble servitude of dying for others in loving service.