“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)
Once upon a time, a popular musician sang: “We all want to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” To a large extent, this statement sums up our liturgy today. It is a good thing to desire heaven but the question is: “How many of us are willing to pay the price for it?”
Last Sunday, a rich young man approached Jesus with this same desire for greatness. He asked: “What must I do to INHERIT eternal life?” He wanted to know what he would do once and for all so that at the end of his life, heaven would be allotted to him as an inheritance. He was not willing to take any chances. Jesus began by telling him of the commandments of which the young man said: “All these I have observed since my youth.” Deep within him, this man knew that keeping God’s commandments alone was not a guarantee for heaven.
Jesus looked at him with love and said: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). It was at this point that the man walked away sorrowful. If only he was willing to pay the price, he would have secured an inheritance in heaven. Jesus made it clear that those who love and trust in their earthly riches will find it extremely difficult to enter heaven.
Peter asked Jesus: “What about us (the disciples) who have left everything to follow you?” Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time … and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30).
Somehow, James and John were not satisfied with this response, like the young man who wanted to know how to INHERIT eternal life, they came to Jesus seeking double assurance. Knowing that Jesus is God who never promises and fails, James and John wanted Jesus to promise them not just heaven but the greatest seats in heaven; at the left and right of Jesus. This brings us to our lessons for today:
1. Heaven is Not Cheap: It is only for those willing to pay the Price.
Once upon a time, Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a “treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy, he goes and SELLS ALL THAT HE HAS and buys that field.” Jesus repeated: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and SOLD ALL THAT HE HAD and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46).
Heaven is a great treasure; it is not cheap. It comes at a price – one that may demand letting go of everything we have. When James and John brought their request to Jesus, it is very instructive to note that Jesus did not rebuke them for making such a bold request, rather Jesus simply asked: ARE YOU WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE?
2. The Price of Heaven is Suffering
At this point, one begins to wonder: “What price is Jesus talking about?” First, like that young man, James and John had faithfully kept God’s commandments. Secondly, they left their father, Zebedee, and their lucrative fishing business behind when Jesus called them. (Matthew 4:21-22). They did what that young man was not willing to do. Jesus seems to indicate a third step – the sacrifice of one’s very life for the good of others.
Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). For us to get a clear picture of what Jesus was talking about, let us listen to what Isaiah says in today’s first reading: “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin.” (Isaiah 53:10) In other words, Jesus was asking them, “Are you willing to be bruised, to be put to grief, and suffer just like me?”
Dear friends, let us place ourselves in the shoes of James and John and listen to Jesus asking us the same question. No wonder Jesus would say: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35).
3. Since Jesus Suffered and Died For Me, Why Must I Suffer?
At the heart of the gospel of prosperity which has become the opium of today’s Christians is the great lie which says: “Jesus suffered for our sake, he took all our pain away, all we have to do now is to enjoy the benefits of this great sacrifice, to live in superabundance.” Listen, Jesus never said that we would never suffer, rather, Jesus said that if we suffer for His sake, we would gain eternal life.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:10-12). The gospel of prosperity twists the truth deceiving us into seeking rewards here on earth rather than in heaven.
By dying on the cross, Jesus did not take away our suffering, instead, He taught us how to suffer, how to forgive those who sin against us, how to love our neighbours as ourselves, how not to give up even when we fall under the weight of the cross. This is what our second reading today from the book of Hebrews teaches us. Let us hold fast to our confession for we have in Jesus a great high priest who is able to sympathize with us in our sufferings.
4. The Key to Greatness is to Serve.
When Jesus asked James and John if they were willing to drink the cup and be baptized with His baptism, they quickly responded: “We are able.” Even their very demand showed that they assumed heaven was like the Roman Empire whereby such seats would indicate power and superiority over the other disciples. Though they seemed to be genuinely interested in heaven, there were ulterior motives behind their demand. If Jesus had said “yes, okay, you would have the seats” they would have rejoiced like footballers who have just won the World Cup.
Recall that a few Sundays ago, we read how Jesus prophesised to his disciples that He would be handed over to men, that He killed but rise again on the third day. Mark tells us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask Him. (Mark 9:32). They were too afraid to ask Him because earlier on, Peter tried only for Jesus to say to him: “Get behind me Satan” (Mark 8:33). Since no one was willing to challenge Jesus anymore, they started arguing among themselves who was the greatest.
Jesus knew they were arguing but kept them quiet till they got home then He said to them: “IF ANYONE WOULD BE FIRST, HE MUST BE LAST OF ALL AND SERVANT OF ALL.” (MARK 9:35). Jesus even took a child and put him in the midst of them saying: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37) Unfortunately, the disciples still did not get the message. They continued to argue about who was the greatest among them. Up till the moment of His Ascension, they were still expecting Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom. (Cf. Acts 1:6).
The move by James and John to ask for those seats was simply a very clever way to win the argument, to prove to others that they were superior. This is why the other disciples were indignant of James and John. When Jesus understood what was going on, He realized there was a need to remind the disciples of what He earlier taught them: “WHOEVER WOULD BE GREAT AMONG YOU MUST BE YOUR SERVANT, AND WHOEVER WOULD BE FIRST AMONG YOU MUST BE SLAVE OF ALL.” (MARK 10:43-44).
Dear friends, what is your idea of greatness? Do you dream of becoming a lord over others so you can oppress them, treat people like they are nothing, deny them their basic human rights, make them serve you, or worship you? It means you are yet to learn from Christ, it means you are still worldly-minded. To be great is to serve others just like Christ who came not to be served but to give His life as a ransom for many.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, help me to choose you above the world. Amen.
Bible Study: Isaiah 53:10-11, Ps. 33:4-5,18-20,22, Hebrews 4:14-16 & Mark 10:35-45)