While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
Mark says that it was the James and John who asked Jesus for important posts in his kingdom (10:37). But Matthew puts the blame on their mother! However, the cover-up is transparent in the text when you check the original Greek. ‘You’ is both singular and plural in English, but Greek makes the difference clear. “Jesus said to the brothers, ‘You (plural) do not know what you (plural) are asking. Can you (plural) drink the cup that I am about to drink?’” He was speaking to them, not to their mother. Furthermore, the others were angry “with the two brothers.” John Chrysostom tried to steer around it by saying: “It seems that both the mother and the two sons of Zebedee together came to him.” Nice try.
The anger of the others reveals something else. Why were they not just amused, or perhaps embarrassed for them? Their anger reveals that they had a personal stake in the matter. They too saw themselves in the running for the top posts! This is all the more absurd because Jesus had just been speaking about the suffering and humiliation he himself was about to endure.
Today's reading, then, has the same theme as yesterday’s. The only difference is that yesterday’s was about the Pharisees, but today’s is about the Apostles! If there is an excuse for the two, it is possibly that they were very young and inexperienced, and didn't have much awareness of what they were saying. An ancient writer saw it that way. “If the Lord, when he had entered into his suffering, said, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’ (Mt 26:39), how much more would they have been incapable of saying ‘We are able’ if they had known what the challenge of death was like?” Indeed, he added, if the other ten had understood what they were all being called to, they would not have been angry with the two: for they were being called to great suffering. Chrysostom added that they seem not to have grasped the logic of Jesus: that the first would be last. “James and John disgraced themselves by seeking the first place. That puts them among the last.”
Through the ages, that logic – much more difficult than Aristotle’s – has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Its implications have not fully sunk in. There is still a culture of privilege, precedence and power in the Church. Has it ever sunk in, in any age? The same ancient writer said, “If James and John were installed at Jesus’ right and left, how could there be any room left for the rest of us?”
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