The New Testament was composed during the first generations of the Church’s existence. In fact, the letters of St. Paul are the earliest documents of the New Testament, though they were later situated in the Bible after the Gospel accounts. When they preached, the apostles and the other early evangelists relied on prophecies from the Old Testament. One of their favorites was the prophet, Isaiah. Isaiah seemed to foretell a Messiah, but one very different from ordinary expectations. The Messiah Isaiah foresaw would suffer, much as the person outlined in our first reading this Sunday; yet “the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.”
The second reading, from the New Testament “Letter” to the Hebrews”, approaches the same mystery but from a different angle. “Hebrews” may have been written to an early Christian community, which included some priests from the Jerusalem temple. These men may have been concerned that Jesus truly was the long-expected Messiah and that consequently they had been justified in following Him. “Hebrews” relies on liturgical language familiar to them. The author tries to establish that Jesus is the ultimate priest and sacrifice. Subsequently, the sacrifices in the temple were no longer necessary. Jesus offers Himself and therefore “we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God…” Jesus passing through the heavens to be with God is reminiscent of the high priest passing through the veil into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to commune with God.
Yet Jesus is also one of us: “We do not have a high priest, who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tempted in every way, yet without sin.”
The apostles were slow to grasp that the saving mission of Jesus would require His death and then His Resurrection. In today’s Gospel, St. Mark pictures James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking Jesus for a favor. The favor is that they be seated at His right and left when He enters His glory. Seats to the right and left of a king’s throne were of the places of highest honor. James and his brother John are still imagining that God’s reign would be like an enlarged and revivified kingdom such as that of David and Solomon in the past. When challenged by Jesus to “drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” they readily agree. They imagine that this will involve glory and magnificence. Actually, Jesus is making a reference to His encroaching Passion and death. And yes, eventually they will share in that!
Mark tells us that the other ten apostles were indignant when they heard of the request of James and John. They were not aggravated because they had a better perception of Jesus’ mission; they were aggravated because James and John got the jump on them. The brothers boldly ask for something that the others also desired. This gives Jesus leave to teach them again about the leadership requirement in God’s kingdom.
Jesus compares leadership in God’s kingdom to the type of leadership displayed by the Romans and those working with them, like the Herod princelings. Their authority was felt by a generous use of the lash, the sword and through fear. In God’s kingdom, the exact opposite pertains. The greatest will be the one who serves the others. Whoever wishes to be first will follow Jesus Himself: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for the many”. This was an “eye-opener” for the apostles, who somewhat naturally were thinking in conventional terms. What a radical thing this is!
The bottom line of Christianity is radical! Before any other consideration is the recognition that God loves us so much that His Word, His Self-Communication, plunges into our humanity in order to call us to share His divinity. God, the awesome creator of all that is, serves us! Identified at Baptism with Jesus, the Word made flesh, we, in turn, are expected to emulate God Himself: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant…”