29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Have you ever been in a situation where you knew that in say three days hence,         something very unpleasant had to be done?  I had a tooth pulled several years ago, and when the doctor on a Friday made the appointment for the following Monday, all I could think about over the entire weekend was , “it’s getting closer, and closer, it’s coming!”  Well, that’s what Jesus was experiencing in today’s Gospel.  He and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem to    celebrate the Passover.  But this was not just another Passover.  Jesus knew that this was going to be his last Passover, that he was going to suffer huge torments, and somewhat like with my    aching tooth that needed extracting, he knew that the result after going through the pain would be wonderful but getting there was not at all going to be pleasant.  He tells them of his impending death, and the disciples, who knew that Jesus had made numerous enemies, especially of the Pharisees, knew that Jesus was serious.  They too, scripture says, were afraid.  I can’t imagine what was going on in Jesus’ mind as the gates of Jerusalem approached.

            Strangely, right in the midst of this, two of his most trusted apostles, the brothers James and John, sidle up to Jesus and ask that they be given the highest positions in the Kingdom after Jesus himself.  Forget all this suffering and death talk; they wanted to focus exclusively on the good part, this Kingdom Jesus kept talking about.  They wanted to skip over the process and get right to the benefits.

            They think they know what they are asking but they don’t.  They don’t know that, as in anything in life, you can’t cheat your way past the work that needs to be done and go right to the payoff.  Apparently, taking Jesus at His word that He had a kingdom, they thought they could conjure up a little nepotism to ride Jesus’ coattails straight into the palace.  What they didn’t know was the true price of admission, that they would have to do in time exactly what Jesus was about to do now, to suffer and die.  Could they pay that steep a price to gain the kingdom?  Could you?

            If Jesus made it clear that he had to suffer and die, and mentioned it several times, then why didn’t James and John understand?  What would make them even think to ask such a       tactless question?  Probably because they were setting their focus too low: they heard the word ‘kingdom’ and liked it, but when the word ‘suffering’ came up, they just ignored it.  Kings don’t suffer.  They probably thought they could con their way out of the bad part and go right for the gold.  I think it’s sort of like the lie a bank robber might tell himself that he can rob banks forever and be the only one in history who won’t get caught.  Of course he will, no matter what he tells himself.  We call that ‘magical thinking,’ and James and John are presently doing a pretty good job of displaying it.  Ever do any magical thinking?  No?  Then how come I can almost read your minds as to what you are going to do when you win the next MegaMillions next week, or should I call it ‘Megabillions?’  What was the name of that boat you’re buying next week?

            James and John are displaying their flawed humanity for all to see.  Kingdom?  In heaven?  Naw, can’t wait that long.  So they convince themselves that all the ‘Messiah buzz,’ despite what Jesus has clearly said, is for an earthly king and kingdom and they want a piece of it.  If the time came to actually suffer, they’d just have to figure a way out of it.

            Jesus knew how confused they are, especially given that the Pharisees, who had all the influence, had done a pretty good job of brainwashing the people into thinking that the Messiah would come to help them overthrow Roman occupation and set up a new Kingdom of Israel.  Can’t blame them: the Romans were brutalizing them, and the Jews wanted them gone.  But on the other hand, Jesus knew that they didn’t understand and that their minds were clouded so he goes gentle on them.  He tells James and John that they don’t know what they are asking.       They’ll get their wish, though: they will drink the same cup of suffering that Jesus would drink.  They would gain a high place in the Kingdom, true, but first, instead of a palace in Israel, a dungeon and an execution would be, in imitation of Jesus’ own suffering, the cup they would have to drink.  Jesus asked them if they were ready, they replied ‘yes.’  Really?

            I see a serious lesson here for all of us.  The work-out people love to say, ‘no pain, no gain.’  Everybody wants to hit the lottery to avoid having to work any longer, everybody wants to speed and not get caught, everybody wants to have the dream that tells them the next stock that will make them rich.  It’s just human nature, and the apostles James and John fell for it      today.  They wanted to collect their piece of the kingdom the easy way.  Jesus tells them, and us, that salvation takes work, hard work, there are no free lunches, with suffering, sadness and setbacks.  And many, many people aren’t up to the task.  Many, many people would rather have their kingdom here and now, and will give in to the earthly pleasures that entice them and cloud their focus.  But then again, I think we have to look to the reaction of James and John when    presented with the choice.  Lesser men, like Judas, upon finding that what Jesus offered was not what they thought they wanted, would have left Jesus’ side.  James and John didn’t.  And they did in time willfully drink that same cup of suffering.  And they did in time enter the promised Kingdom.

            Remember that the next time you kneel down to pray, especially if you are praying for something to happen or for some favor you may need granted.  Be ready and waiting for God’s answer, but be ready to accept the consequences: your answer may not be what you expected   exactly, but nevertheless it will be a clear manifestation of God’s will.  And for those willing to tough it out and put up with the suffering that may come with what you ask, for those willing to drink the cup, the whole cup, as Jesus reminds us today, a glorious kingdom awaits.

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