To serve, not to be served
Most of the time, it's easy to respond to the Gospel with a hardy, "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ," but sometimes it isn't. I suppose the readings that make us uncomfortable are the ones we need to hear most. They challenge not only what we choose to do but why we choose to do it. They open a window into the hidden motivations of our hearts, the ones that aren't readily apparent to others -- or even to ourselves.
It must have been wonderful to witness miraculous healings and edifying to hear wise words, to be with Jesus as he preached throughout Galilee and Judea. But I imagine that it was less uplifting when the Teacher challenged something held dear or directly confronted the sin and selfishness lurking behind what one of his followers said or did. The Gospels still do just that.
In the Gospel for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the sons of Zebedee show their hand. Their encounter with Christ is off-kilter from the start. James and John approach Jesus in a way that too many Christians have and still do -- with the demand that he do whatever they ask. We may look down our noses at these two fishermen, but many of our own prayer requests aren't much different. We come to God with the expectation that he will do what we want, when we ought to be asking him to help us do what he wills.
When Jesus asks Zebedee's sons what it is they are looking for, their answer feels as radically out of place as it is. "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." These young men want glory. They want Jesus to promise them that their places in eternity will come with power, influence, recognition, and acclaim. They don't seem to care who they offend in the asking. They just want assurance that following Jesus was a smart investment, that things will turn out better for them in the end than they do for anyone else. If we're honest, a lot of us are looking for glory, and not necessarily the kind of glory we were created for. We want credit; we want to be respected and admired. We want to be seen with Jesus, close beside him, as if he trusts and relies on us when it ought to be the other way around.
But instead of an instant rebuke, Jesus makes this a teachable moment. He tells James and John that they do not understand what they are really asking for. "Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" Their answer reveals just how clueless -- and proud -- they really are. "We can." And we are so much like them! We have next to no idea of what God is asking of us. And when following Jesus turns out to be much more difficult than we imagined, we resort to spiritual bootstrapping and attempt to live discipleship on our own power.
When Jesus corrects them, he turns position and authority on its head. "Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all." Why? Because Christ himself did not come to be served, but to serve. That pill was hard to swallow two thousand years ago, and it hasn't gotten any easier. If anything, we are so used to being served that we've lost touch with what it really means to serve. Like James and John, most of us are still looking for credit. We'll serve, as long as there's something in it for us.
As T.S. Eliot wrote in his play "Murder in the Cathedral," "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason." It's so easy to do all the things we're "supposed" to do out of deeply selfish motivation. But that is not the heart of Christ. Jesus comes to serve, to love, to give his life selflessly.
The Church needs an army of servants like that today. Instead of vying for the best position, we need Jesus to mold and form us in service. He can do that best when we stop looking for credit and rush to the back of the line, when we allow everyone a place ahead of us, when we stop asking to be served and pick up the slack ourselves.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.