by Fr. Jim Willig
James and John ask Jesus to sit at his right and at his left. Little do they know what Jesus will soon go through and who will be on his left and right as he enters his glory.
Gospel: Mark 10:35-45
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.”
Can You Drink This Cup?
There’s one thing we can always count on regarding the disciples: they are slow learners. Don’t you love that about them? They make me feel a little better about myself. Today’s gospel’s a beautiful portrayal—not only of James and John and the other 10—but I’d suggest all of us. All of us who are trying to get ahead in life; don’t we all want to get ahead? Don’t we all want to make it a little bit easier, make life a little bit better? Isn’t that where they’re coming from?
I imagine that’s what’s going on in our lives now? I imagine there’s a lot going on in our lives now but imagine there’s some kind of driving force in us to want to get ahead and especially to be close to the Lord—sit at his right and left side, why not? You know? Why not?
So let’s look at this as a way of looking at ourselves. This Gospel is like a mirror that reflects a part of our own human-ness and weakness and it’s a call to holiness. We remind ourselves first of the context. Remember, it so important to understand any Scripture verses to read what precedes the verse so we get the context. The context you might know is Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem. It’s more of a spiritual journey than just geographical. It’s a journey that is leading to his passion and his to his death.
In fact the verse before this gospel passage we just read is where Jesus predicts for a third time that he will suffer at the hands of the chief priests and the elders and scribes and be put to death. Remember, “for a third time” in the Scriptures means that Jesus is saying over and over again. And over and over again though he says it, the disciples clearly don’t get it.
Look at the juxtaposition of this. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to die and it’s going to be an awful death.” Next verse, Peter James and John come up and say, “Can you do us a favor?” Believe it or not I saw this happen. I visited a hospital and a woman was just diagnosed with cancer. I came into the room and she shared that with me. I just was silent with her in grief and her friend came in. She looked at her and she said, “Yep it’s the big C.” Her friend came and threw her arms around her but one minute later said, “By the way if you don’t want that vase you have in your…”
Can you imagine? I nearly died, but that’s exactly what we have here. What’s wrong with this picture? Jesus is telling them how he’s facing his agony and his death and they are more concerned about themselves. Remember who James and John were? James and John were one of the first who were called along with Peter and Andrew—the first fishermen—called to come follow him. They had been with him for a long time now and they were part of the inner circle, if you will.
Peter, James and John formed that inner core team with Christ. You know they were privileged to be in the transfiguration on the mountaintop, and again in the agony in the garden, the raising of the daughter of Jairus they were clearly part of Jesus closest companions maybe that’s why they felt they had an in with him and were coming to take advantage of that because as they approached they said to him, “We want you to grant our request.” Jesus kindly says to them and to us, “What is it?” This is wonderful that Jesus wants to know what’s on our heart at any time. Jesus is always inviting our prayer, “What can I do for you?” he would say. They say, “See to it…” Does this sound like someone who likes to be in control? You can see the finger-pointing. “See to it Jesus…” This is how I pray sometimes you know, “God can’t use it to see to it?”
“See to it that we sit one at you right and the other at your left.” The prize seats. They’re asking for this privilege that we all wish for and want but this very request suggests that they are really, really missing the point; several points that can be understood. Obviously they are still having a very common mistake in view of Jesus as the Messiah. Many of the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus expected that Messiah, when he would come, would be a powerful political leader or military warrior that would free Israel from the oppression of the Roman government and restore and reestablish the kingdom as they once knew it in the golden ages of King David.
They wanted that kingdom where they were totally in control. They wanted the golden glory days. Clearly they hadn’t been listening and learning to all that Jesus had been trying to teach them about who he was. He was not at all that kind of a king. In fact he was a suffering servant as we will see him emphasize at the end of the gospel. They are missing the whole point; not only of who Jesus is but who they are called to be and so Jesus says to them what I would imagine he would say to us many times, “You do not know what you’re asking for.”
Someone once said the worst thing that could happen to us as if we could have all of our prayers answered as we wanted them. What would’ve happened if Jesus would’ve given them exactly what they asked for? You tell me now, who was at Jesus’ right hand and left hand as he entered into his glory? The two thieves were on crosses on either side of him. Jesus is saying, “You guys don’t know what you’re asking for.” Isn’t that what Christ often says to us which is why when we pray, we need to always pray, “not my will, but thy will be done.”
Yes we make our petition known and need to express our desire sincerely and humbly to the Lord, but always, “Let thy will be done.” Jesus says, “You do not know what you’re asking for because can you drink the cup I am to drink? Can you be baptized at the same bath of pain as I?” You could see Jesus’ sorrowful eyes and voice asking this question as he sees what’s in store for him. They quickly and impetuously—almost totally unconsciously—say we can with his wide-eyed naïveté, “We can.”
Jesus says, “You do not know what you’re asking for.” They didn’t have a clue. I have to confess to you I sometimes think of this when I stand before a beautiful bride and groom on their wedding day and say, “Do you take him or her for better/for worse?” They say, “We can!” I think, “Oh God, you don’t know what you are saying.” Isn’t it true? I’ve asked couples who have been married 50 years, “Do you again take your wife/your husband to be your spouse?” There is usually a profound moment of pause and then they say, “Yes.” You can just see them flashing back to all that they’re saying what for better and for worse means.
It’s true of me. I didn’t have a clue what I was saying “yes” to when I was ordained upstairs 20 years ago. A seminarian came to me just recently—two weeks ago. He entered the seminary and is studying to be a priest. He said to me, “Father, I want to ask you a question that’s really on my mind. Is being a priest really what you thought it would be? I need to know.” I hesitated a moment, not sure how much to tell! I said, “No it’s a lot better and it’s a lot harder.” I could see his eyes getting bigger saying, ‘could you say a little more?’ I said, “Yeah, I never thought it would be this fulfilling. I never thought it would be this challenging.”
I bet everybody who’s married or made any commitment to any one person could say “Amen” to that. Amen? It’s a lot more fulfilling than I ever expected being a priest would be, my goodness. I’ve shared some of that, but it’s a whole lot more challenging than I ever thought it would be too. It’s better, it’s harder, it’s greater, it’s more difficult than I’d imagined. Thank God we don’t know that when we make the commitment. The fortunate thing is, Jesus understood that. He was very patient with James and John. He knew they had to travel down this road a lot longer and they would and they did and someday they did drink of that cup.
What is this cup? Jesus uses—as often he does—a great powerful symbol or image that speaks volumes. What is the compass symbol of? You might know this. In the ancient Middle Eastern culture, especially for formal meals, it was the privilege of the head of the household to pour the house wine into all the cups of all the people sitting at the table. Of course it was expected that you would accept this gift and drink of this gift. This seemed to be a wonderful analogy, spiritually speaking, of how they understood our lot in life. As it were, God comes to each of us and pours into our cup (our heart, our lives) a certain amount of happiness and sorrow; a certain amount of joy and suffering; a certain amount of difficulty, even tragedy, yet a share in his glory. Can we accept it? Can we hold it? Can we drink it, that is, totally assimilate it into ourselves? That’s a great challenge.
This is the cup that was given to me by my grandmother 20 years ago when I was first a priest. She brought it up in the offertory procession. I wanted something simple but something that would be dignified, as would suggest the cup that Christ holds up. It is this cup I hold up to you today that I often hold up everyday at Mass. I think of these words of Jesus, “Can you drink of the cup?” Remember the cup represents your life, but not just your life. It represents Jesus’ life. Can you drink of that one life with the Lord? It is not just wine. It is his blood. This isn’t just any ordinary cup. This isn’t just any ordinary gift God’s giving us. I used this as part of my first Mass homily. I said, “You know that we are vessels of clay but we hold the treasure.” God what a treasure and that treasure is our life that God gives us not in ordinary life, but an extraordinary share in His life. That’s what we hold up. That’s what Jesus offers us, but we know there’s a lot of pain with that and that’s what we have to drink in slowly and deeply. It takes a lifetime I guess to do that.
It’s interesting, he asked James and John, “Can you share this cup?” “Absolutely,” they say. Well, what is the next time we hear about Jesus cup? Remember? The garden of Gethsemane. Even he in his honesty and humanness is asking, “Father let this cup pass from me.” Again what is the cup? His lot in life, his passion that his father’s asking of him; his suffering. He’s praying humanly, “Father let this cup pass.” But remember how he teaches us pray, “not my will but thy will be done.”
He asked James and John to share that cup with him, remember, to share that prayer with him but where were they? Fast asleep. Totally unconscious. Totally, as it were, unwilling to share in that cup; that hour of suffering. Isn’t interesting? We should be careful what we pray for because the Lord wants to give it to us in the best way but it’s harder than we might imagine at first. Can we drink of the cup? That’s what Jesus comes to say, “From the cup I drink of, you shall drink.” He says, “The bath that I will be immersed in, you shall have.”
I can really relate to James and John because I have this quiet ambition in me that wants to be great you know. Okay I confess, I’d love to be Billy Graham, you know? I confess. I’m not suffering delusions of grandeur but, I would love to be Billy Graham. You know, to have such a powerful influence over people’s lives? I would probably want to be Billy Graham for all the wrong reasons, you understand? It would be for the ambition and not the service but I would hope to serve. God uses us.
What does the Lord want of us? That’s the cup. What is our cup? We might say today, “What’s on our plate? What’s he giving to us? What’s he asking of us? What’s our vocation? What’s our mission? That’s what he wants. I was once encouraging people at Mass. I held up the cup and—after reading this very gospel—I said, “Can you drink of this cup? Can you drink deeply of this cup?” Whatever Jesus is wanting for you, which I would bet everything is more than you would ever want for yourself. Like a parent would want the best for their child, doesn’t God want so much more for us? Will you drink deeply of that cup? Don’t pass by this cup. Drink deeply.
So Jesus is saying, “All right, this is what I want. I want you to share deeply. I want you to drink of the cup. I want you to share my life. I want you to have all my love and the power that only comes from service; from pouring your life out like this blood from the cross and from his side.
Now the other 10, they hear about what’s going on this conversation. You can imagine they’re walking along the road. In fact in this time Jesus would have been walking ahead of them as was the custom of rabbis back then. The problem is he’s so far ahead of them. He’s so far ahead them but they’re catching up with him. The other ten say, “We overheard some things.” They are upset with James and John. Why? It’s not because they’re embarrassing them or you know they’re asking the wrong question or not getting the lesson. They’re upset because they don’t want them to have what they don’t have. This is sibling rivalry don’t you think? It’s petty jealousy. All these things that are part of every church and what it points out is that none of them are getting it. They’re all off the road as it were and Jesus calls them back on the right road which is not the high way but the low way that leads to the Lord’s way.
You can just see him stop in the road to say, “Look guys, let me tell you again. You know how it is among the Gentiles—that’s the world out there, those who don’t know God and God’s ways. You know how it is? Those who exercise authority Lord it over them. They love to give orders and tell everybody what to do. The great ones make their authority felt.” We can all think of some people who come to our mind. Maybe it’s people who work at corporations, or the military, or at most organizations. I daresay even in the church today.
Jesus looks at them and says, “It cannot be that way with you. Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest. Whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.” Jesus is asking for an exact complete reversal. This is what’s troubling me sometimes in our church. It is so built on a pyramid of hierarchy but really it needs to be totally inverted. When Jesus used the words, “You must become servant to all” the word in Greek is diakonoi, from which we have the word deacon, which was the person who served at the table—like Jesus did at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of all.
You’ve heard me say, one of the great lessons that I feel blessed to have been given at St. Joe’s was the hardest blessing. It was one of those ouch kind of blessings that disguised itself as suffering at first, but when I came there (I thought as pastor) I had no power to make any decision. I was told I could not make any changes. People were hired and I didn’t even know about it. Decisions were made on staff changes and I wasn’t even conferred with or consulted. Something’s wrong with this picture. I thought I was the pastor here! Then I thought, “Lord, what are you trying to teach me?” It’s always a good question to ask: “God what you trying to teach me?”
He was trying to teach me where the real power is. I thought I needed only one power; actually two. First was to love and serve the people. So I said every day as I drove there from here, “Lord give me your love and humility to really serve the people.” And secondly the power to preach the word. All I can say is, Jesus blessed me to realize when I left, what the people told me is the tremendous power of God that was able to work through this weak instrument. That is the only power that matters. It’s only power that wins hearts and I’ve only begun to experience that.
I’m not patting myself on the back it all. I struggled the whole way. Many times I said, “What am I, the deacon here?” And Jesus said, “Yeah. Yeah you’re getting it now.” That’s the message my friends.
I read a great little reflection/meditation book on this gospel passage written by one of the most wonderful, spiritual writers of the century—I would say—Fr. Henry Nouwen. Many of you perhaps have heard of him. This book is entitled Can You Drink the Cup?
Can You Drink the Cup? Let me share briefly three reflections he has on what it means to drink of the cup. He says first he was reflecting on his uncle who happened to be a priest and was a connoisseur of wine and how he would come to visit the family and before he would ever drink of that cup he would look at the wine—you know how the real connoisseurs look at it? They swirl it. Sniff it. He would really be hold the contents of the cup. He said this is what we must do in life. We must take life and just hold it. Otherwise what will happen is we tend to be people who like to just guzzle down life; just go through life so fast and if we do we just become guzzlers. We’ll become inebriated and lose our way.
He says we need to reflect on what’s the Lord doing in my life? What’s the Lord saying to me? What’s God right now offering to me? How’s he working in my life? What’s on my plate or in my cup? Right now, pay attention to the movements of the spirit. We only do that if we develop the discipline of holding the cup. That’s the first reflection he has.
The second is part of our culture and certainly part of our church custom: it is to lift up the cup. Lifting the cup reminds us of making a toast as we do so often. We lift up the cup. I mention all the different kinds of toasts. In Latin we say Prosit. It means be well. In German Zum Wohl—to your well-being. In English we say cheers. In French à votre santé—to your health. In Italian, Salute—health. Or in Polish, Sto Lat—a hundred years. The one he loved most of all is one written in Hebrew which Jewish people always toasted to each other which was L’Chaim.
Remember that song, “L’Chaim. To life, to life, L’Chaim.” To life. That is the cup Jesus holds up and that is what the cop represents: our life. Again it is not just our life, but the life the Lord’s offering us. He’s saying we need to lift it up as a way of sharing that life. We all need some friends he says. This is an absolute necessity and what I find absolutely important for growing in the spiritual life, is to have some friends that we can share our deepest secrets and struggles, our pains and sorrows and joys with.
Who are those people who we can, as it were, lift up the cup? We need that if we are to grow. Who are the people that you share your deepest struggles, desires, joys and problems with? We need such a brother and sister in Christ. This is then the cup of blessing that we hold up and offer to each other.
Finally he says, besides holding and lifting the cup we must drink from the cup. He reflects that it’s interesting how friends often say, “Why don’t you come over for a drink.” And the drink has very little to do with what’s shared. The liquid matters little. What matters is what’s shared in the sharing of the drinking. It is openness to friendship and to all the pain and the sorrow and the friendship, the love, that we express.
What I want to end with in my portion sharing, is that Jesus is lifting up the cup to us today. He says, “Can you drink of this cup?” He’s offering us today a greater share in his love, his joy, his peace and most especially, his spirit. Can you drink of this cup? Hold it. Lift it. Drink it in.