When it comes to human behavior, there really does seem to be nothing new under the sun. In today’s Gospel [Matthew 20:17-28], Jesus has again told his disciples what lies in store for him in Jerusalem. The 1st time he did this, Peter had tried to talk him out of it, prompting both a severe reprimand and a no-nonsense instruction on what being a disciple really means. The 2nd time, the disciples they argued among themselves about which was the greatest. When asked what they’d been arguing about, their silence suggested at least some sense of embarrassment. Here, however, with no hint of embarrassment, two of Jesus’ most favored disciples (and thus the ones most especially susceptible to a sense of entitlement) have their mother request that they be given the best seats in the kingdom.
Not surprisingly, the other 10 quickly became indignant. Apparently, they neither accepted nor were willing to cater to the particular status hierarchy favored by James and John. Jealousy (as Britain’s Queen Alexandra famously said 101 years ago) is the source of so many problems in life. The 10’s jealous indignation in turn prompted yet another much needed instruction from Jesus – clarifying both what his life is about and what the life of any would-be disciple must be about.
What makes this incident so wonderful is the brilliant way Jesus handled his hard-to-teach disciples – both the 2 ambitious brothers and the 10 jealous others. Jesus was obviously a very good teacher. He recognized his disciples’ natural ambition. Rather than condemning them, he affirmed their ambition and gave it completely new content.
So you want to be great, Jesus tells his disciples. OK, then, be great – but not by imitating all those rich and prominent people you all admire and envy so much, but by imitating me. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How’s that for an ambition to aspire to, an accomplishment to envy?
If following Jesus is to have any real meaning, Jesus is telling us, then it must be different with us from the way it is with the rest of the world. By his own life – and above all by his death – Jesus illustrated that by showing how different it is with him from the way it tends to be with us. Our task is not to analyze the world, which is just being the way the world is, but to change the world – but to do so by having him change us.
Homily at Lenten Ecumenical Service at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 23, 2011