Our Gospel today features two brothers, James and John, and their misplaced ambition to gain positions of honour in our Lord’s community or ‘kingdom’. They expected Jesus to bring about a new political kingdom in Palestine that would free Jewish people from Roman rule. To the anger and resentment of their fellow disciples, they wanted positions of prestige at the cabinet table.
Instead of granting them the favour they sought, Jesus asked if they could ‘drink the cup’ that he had to drink. In the Mediterranean culture of that time, the head of a family filled the cups of all the people sharing a meal with him. Everyone was expected to accept and drink what was poured for them. As people then assumed that God behaved as they did in their culture, seeing God as the head of their family, they used the analogy of the ‘cup to drink’ to represent the lot in life which God had assigned for each person.
So when Jesus – who had accepted his assigned lot or ‘cup’ from God – asks the two brothers if they were willing to drink from the same cup God had allotted him, they said they were. Little did they know what this involved, that it would be a cup of suffering and martyrdom. Jesus then told them that he, as God’s agent, was not in a position to offer what they wanted; he was a broker, as it were, acting on God’s behalf. It is God alone, he said, who determines each person’s lot in life and whatever honour they may receive.
Then all hell broke loose when the other disciples heard what James and John were up to behind their backs. This row provoked Jesus to explain something that underpins what it means to be a Christian – greatness in the eyes of God is measured by a very different standard from the one we humans use. If you want to be considered ‘great’ in the eyes of God, Jesus says, you must care for and serve others, not dominate them.
In our Mass we remember and pray for those who serve others in countless ways every day, including those who make sacrifices to suffer lovingly and generously in caring for others. We remember and pray also for those whose ‘cup’ or lot in life may involve poverty, famine or destitution; heartache, grief or loss; sickness, suffering or pain. Compared with them, many of us are extremely fortunate and lead very privileged lives. Where and when we can, Jesus asks us to serve and care for them. He calls us to be servants of one another. May he grant us the grace to be so.
Holy Name, Jesmond
17 October 2021