16th Wednesday in Ordinary Time
Feast of St. James
2Cor 4:7-15; Mt 20:20-28
In our gospel reading today we have the mother of James and John asking Jesus that her sons sit on his right and left in his kingdom. This same passage in Mark 10:35-45 has the two brothers themselves making the request. Mark’s version of this story is most likely the oldest.
The three Synoptic Gospels are called that because you can line them up side by side and see how they mirror each other in so many places. There are quite a few theories about how that happened and who was copying whom. I remember a seminary professor in the mid-eighties who had written a book on this and had lined them up nicely in parallel columns so you could compare them. In class, he used this morning’s passage to make a case for Matthew depending on Mark. He believed that by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written the sacred writer was trying to soften the embarrassment of the two brothers who were by then quite respected. Also, Matthew’s text starts out by saying the mother asked, but quickly reverts to Mark’s version by having Jesus reply to the sons rather than their mother.
In the final analysis, though, it really doesn’t matter who made the request – those details are inconsequential. The point of the story is the teaching of Jesus that rank and power do not matter — it is service that counts.
For James and John to try to elbow their way into the two top positions was an immature stage in their development. We should be grateful that this unflattering episode was preserved in the early writings of the Church, along with other uncomplimentary stories of people like St. Peter. These men eventually became the leaders of the Church, but they made plenty of mistakes along the way. Other faith traditions may try to edit out unattractive aspects in the lives of their important people. But not the Judeo-Christian faith. We see our heroes in all their humanness – warts and all. And our lives will be like that too: ups and downs, successes and failures, mistakes and times of poor judgment.
Jesus used this opportunity to drive home a good lesson. We need to be moving away from an attitude of “what’s in it for me” and “how can I make the most of each opening to claw my way to the top and get ahead of everybody else.” Instead, we should be moving toward a life of self-effacement and service of others. We will have to drink from the cup of suffering that Jesus exemplified for us. But, as our responsorial psalm refrain assures us, “Those who sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.”
It would seem that St. James did not remain stuck in this immature stage of ambition but took the lesson of Jesus to heart and moved on to a life of service and focus on others rather than self. He was apparently a significant enough figure in the Jerusalem church to attract the notice of Herod Agrippa, who had him beheaded around the year 44 in order to ingratiate himself with the Jews. The chalice promised by Jesus did indeed come, and because of his life of service and self-denial and the lessons he had learned along the way, he was able to meet the challenge in a way that gave his Master glory and provided a worthy example for all successive generations of believers.