All theology, that is to say, all of our ideas about God and God’s relationship with us, come to us through metaphors and analogies. We are limited by our human experiences and relationships so that when we speak about God, we tend to give God human traits and characteristics. The Scriptures are full of stories of God interacting with the human family. To understand the lessons that the sacred writers intend, we must oftentimes acquaint ourselves with the customs of that society and culture.
When Mediterranean families gather for a meal, the head of the family fills the cups of all at table. Each one is expected to quietly accept without question and drink what the head of the family has given. Since the behavior of God is assumed to be like the behavior of the patriarch of the family in this culture, the cup came to represent the lot in life which God has assigned for each person. God gives each of us a cup of which we are to drink. If Jesus accepts his assigned lot in life, he will attain the honor determined by God. James and John wish to acquire that same honor so they impetuously affirm that they can indeed accept and fulfill the same lot in life, drink the same cup, which God has assigned to Jesus. At this point, Jesus gently reminds them that he is but a broker in the kingdom and not its patron. All that Jesus can do is put others in touch with the Father, the patron, but it is God alone who determines each person’s lot and deserved honor.
The first reading for today’s liturgy is a few verses from the Fourth Suffering Servant Song of the Prophet Isaiah. The four poems from Isaiah describe Israel as chosen by God to be a servant that will bring light to the nations through suffering. They are written about the community itself rather than an individual. However, the Church has come to see these poems as prophetic utterances about Jesus. He is the Suffering Servant who will bring God’s reign to all nations. James and John obviously don’t understand that Jesus has been chosen to suffer. Their expectations about the Messiah have mistaken Jesus as a future king or ruler, much the same as their contemporaries have come to expect of the Messiah. Consequently, they wish to be seated on his right and his left when he is enthroned as king. They fail to realize that Jesus’ throne will be a cross and that he will be flanked by two thieves.
When the other apostles object to James and John’s request, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them about what it means to be God’s servant. The theme that runs throughout all of the Gospels is one of the reversal of fortune. That theme is expressed in many different words: God lifts up the lowly and casts the mighty from their thrones. God feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The one who loses his life, saves it and vice versa. The one who wishes to be great must be the least. The one who wishes to be served must serve. Over and over again, Jesus tells us that the way to God’s kingdom is a counter-cultural path.
Because this message runs counter to the way most of the world thinks, it became necessary for God to demonstrate that message through the life, ministry, passion and death of Jesus. God became one of us, took on our flesh. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that God did this so that we would realize that God understands our weakness. While the high priests of Israel failed to understand, God has given us a new high priest, one who has learned through suffering. Though Jesus was vanquished by the rulers of Israel and Rome, God turned the tables upside down through the resurrection of Jesus. History has been rewritten by the one who seems to have lost but who actually triumphed through the cross.
If we wish to spend eternity with Jesus, if we, like James and John, wish to be seated with Jesus, then we must drink the cup which God has poured for us. It seems to be foolishness, but God’s foolishness is more powerful than the world’s wisdom.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator