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Sunday Scripture: The greatest honor in heaven

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

By Father Timothy Schehr

Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

James and John probably imagined themselves to belong to the Lord’s inner circle. They were among the Lord’s earliest followers, coming just after Simon and Andrew. Only James and John, along with Peter, were allowed to follow Jesus to witness the raising of the daughter of Jarius. Only James and John, again with Peter, witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration. The Lord even had a nickname for them; He called them Sons of Thunder, perhaps because of their readiness to call down fire from heaven to punish those who did not welcome their Lord (Luke 9:54). They seem to have been very proud of their family background. Long after they left their father’s fishing boat they still accepted the title “the sons of Zebedee.” We would not be surprised if they even wore a distinctive emblem with the family logo to set them apart from the rest.

In the Gospel for this Sunday they distinguish themselves once again, this time approaching the Lord with a personal request. They want seats on either side of Jesus when He is glorified. Not at all shy these two! Of course, they are completely clueless about the character of the Lord’s kingdom. They probably thought Jesus would be surrounded by all the conventional royal trappings of the day — (like the court of King Herod perhaps?) — presiding over a very earthly kingdom. And they would be in position to bask in all the attention and glory.

Jesus cautions them with sobering words about what lies in store for Him. He speaks of a cup He must drink and a baptism He must receive, images that foreshadow His suffering and death. But none of this gives James and John the slightest pause; they seem too preoccupied with the image of them sitting with the Lord in glory.

The Lord’s next words must have lifted their spirits…at least for a moment. They would indeed have a share in all that awaits the Lord. But they would soon realize that suffering, hardship, even death are all part of being a disciple. Jesus also tells them He will not be the one granting places of honor in the kingdom. That belongs to His heavenly Father whose plan of salvation He brings to fulfillment. Only when history has run its course will it be clear who is worthy of the honor James and John sought for themselves.

When word of this exchange reaches the rest of the apostles they have less than kind words to speak to them. But Jesus sees in all this yet another teachable moment for His feisty apostles. He gets right to the heart of the matter. He knows they were all thinking about power and prestige. They would just love to have it and be served by others. But it will not be like that. In the kingdom of heaven the greatest honor is service to others.

The prophet Isaiah knew all about serving others. The first reading belongs to his most famous song about God’s special servant. We don’t know who this servant actually was. But he was certainly someone very unlike the proud kings of Isaiah’s time or those two sons of Zebedee…at least at this point in their spiritual journey.

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us we don’t have to make the journey alone. We have a great high priest familiar with all the challenges we face in life. We can confidently approach the Lord and get all the help we need to make progress in our spiritual journey.

Father Schehr is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

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