Nipping it in the bud: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is 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.”

If I ruled the world … That impulse has fueled plenty of art and entertainment, from the first musings of Job to Tears for Fears, Three Dog Night, Tony Bennett, and basically the entire comic-book film genre. There is no greater impulse in us than to seek authority and control over all we see. It is an innate feature in human nature, expressed in healthy ways through sports competition and in less healthy ways in nearly every other way.

The impulse for control is what drives original sin — disobedience to God and attempting to usurp His authority. Adam and Eve wanted to become equal to the Lord rather than appreciate their loving relationship with Him under His authority. When caught, they competed for God’s affection by trying to blame the other. Their son Cain slew Abel because Cain grew jealous of his brother’s relationship with God.

The disciples in this instance don’t fall completely into the same trap, but they’re not too far off from it. James and John aren’t explicitly asking to supplant God, but in effect appointing themselves Deputy God — ahead of all others, including their ten friends in Jesus’ circle.  In demanding to take the most prominent seats to Jesus in Heaven, they are in effect putting their judgment ahead of the Lord’s, and do so in a childish manner that exposes their lack of judgment. In fact, the phrase they use — “we want you to do whatever we ask of you” — sums up the nature of humanity’s fallen relationship with the Lord.

Isn’t that how many of us approach faith at times in our lives? Do we not measure faith as a cost-benefit arrangement for our own advancement at times? It could just as easily be put in this way: Do what I ask or it proves you don’t love me, or If you don’t do what I want, I won’t love you any more. It’s an immature request framed in a childish and implicit taunt. Parents of small children will recognize these patterns of emotional extortion. Usually they will try to explain to their children that they want what’s best for them, not to just appease their whims — and when that doesn’t work, assert their authority and call their bluff.

What does Jesus do in this instance? He warns them, as any parent might in similar circumstances, that they don’t comprehend what it is they demand. The kingdom of Heaven will be that of service, not personal vainglory and authority. Jesus Himself came here to be “slave of all,” giving everything over in order to provide salvation to all who follow Him. The kingdom to come, Jesus warns, will be similarly oriented, where those in higher positions serve those “below” them — and all serve God, in whose radiance all will exist.

That will provide the restoration of the original relationship between the Lord and humanity, as it was with Adam and Eve before they sought to usurp His authority and rule creation on their own.

That impulse to usurp authority and assert our own control resides deeply within all of us. It’s so familiar that we often skewer it in our art and entertainment, even apart from the examples I gave at the top. My favorite example of this, and perhaps the most appropriately absurd, is Barney Fife from the old Andy Griffith Show, played brilliantly by the late Don Knotts. Barney’s a nice enough fellow, but given a taste of authority, he becomes a martinet — even at times a comical Pharisee. Andy’s calm and wise leadership always sets things aright after Barney’s over-enthusiasm for his limited authority creates comic havoc.

Of course, the stakes are much higher in today’s Gospel than they ever were in gentle Mayberry. But we can be sure that the Lord has the same love and mercy in mind when He takes action to nip that usurpation in the bud, as He did with James and John. If we want to be with Jesus in the next life, we need to learn to serve with humility, and to put our trust in the Lord rather than make foolish demands on His beneficence.

The front-page image is a detail from … a screen shot of The Andy Griffith Show.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.