Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica XXIX per Annum B

21 October 2018

The selection from St. Mark’s Gospel this weekend is right around the third and final prediction Jesus makes about his impending passion.  Like the first two predictions, it is met with a clueless and inadequate response from the disciples.  Let’s do some brief review.  The Sacred Liturgy for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time had us listen to Jesus make his first prediction (Mark 8:31ff).  The embarrassing response there was when Peter took Jesus aside and tried to convince Jesus he was wrong.  Jesus responded with a serious tongue-lashing: “Get behind me, Satan.”  We heard Jesus make the second prediction on the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 9:31ff).  The disciples did not understand and they were afraid to question Jesus.  Moments later we learn the depth of their inept response.  It becomes clear that in the very moment of predicting his passion, the disciples had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.  And now this weekend, the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear the gospel selection immediately after Jesus’ third and final prediction, a selection that highlights again the impure motives of the disciples.

That in his very brief Gospel St. Mark devotes space to communicate three distinct predictions of the passion likely tells us something of its importance.  That he uses space to highlight the inept response of the disciples likely also teaches us to be aware of our own resistance to suffering in the life of faith.  Again, in this third prediction, Jesus and the disciples are on the way, going up to Jerusalem.  Here however St. Mark makes the point of telling us that Jesus went ahead of them all (Mk. 10:32).  The image this creates for me is one of Jesus insisting on facing head-on his mission and the will of the Father.  He’s walking ahead.  He’s blazing the trail.  Meanwhile, the disciples, we might imagine are distracted, less than focused, day dreaming, perhaps dragging their heels, busy about imagining a Messiah who doesn’t suffer or how they can achieve a share in Jesus’ glory while avoiding the passion he predicts.

James and John come with the request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  Nice try, boys!  They are seeking the top posts of power and authority in Jesus’ glory, in his kingdom.  That’s what asking for seats at his right and his left mean.  In the Davidic kingdom those seated on either side of the King were the next in authority.   I have said this before, and I might risk repeating myself, but since Jesus repeats himself in these passion predictions, perhaps it bears repeating: Notice that Jesus does not rebuke or scold James and John for their boldness in asking.  Rather he tells them how to achieve the desire.  I think that is very noteworthy for us.  It would seem that desire for greatness, desire to surpass our limits and our boundaries, the desire to surpass even life itself and to reach for eternity is very much part of our human nature.  Jesus doesn’t reject that or say it is a cause of our shame or a reason we can’t be holy.  No, rather he accepts the innate desire and simply focuses our attention on how to achieve it in a good way, in a way that makes us like unto him.

Does Jesus require that James and John – does he require that we? – accept the passion, accept suffering in the life of faith?  Yes.  That’s what his response about the cup and the baptism means.  In the Old Testament a cup is a metaphor for what God has in mind for someone.  It might be a cup of blessing (cf. Ps. 16:5; 23:5; 116:13) or the cup of His wrath (cf. Ps. 75:9; Is. 51:17-22; Jer. 49:12).  Jesus has this latter meaning in mind since he will drink the cup of God’s wrath, God’s judgment for sin.  Jesus requires James and John – and us! – to accept participation in suffering for sin.  We have been engaged now for several weeks in our extraordinary time of penance and reparation for sin in the Church.  Today’s Scripture lesson answers quite well that understandable question that might rise in our conflicted hearts: Why do we do penance?  Why do we make reparation?  Why do we invite suffering and inconvenience for sins that we did not personally commit?  Because it is part of Jesus’ mission and in accepting the cup of God’s wrath for sin we become more like Jesus and that saves us while also making repair for the whole Body of Christ!  The image of baptism in Jesus’ response to James and John also clearly communicates that suffering is part and parcel of the life of faith.  Immersion in water is a biblical image for overwhelming calamity (cf. Ps. 42:8; 88:17-18; Is. 43:2).  For this reason baptism in Christian history has always been viewed as a death, the dying of the old man of sin, a burial in the waters, with a simultaneous rising to new life of the man made new in Christ.

How often are we, like the disciples, ready to reach out and to grasp at the glory of Jesus’ kingdom, while trying to avoid suffering for sin, while keeping rejection and even death at an arm’s length?  The false message comes easily enough.  It sounds like this.  There is so much to do each day and making time for prayer is just too hard.  Surely praying once a weekend is enough! / I have the same sins over and over, do I really have to work to change them? / The drive to lust is just so strong, it’s like it overtakes me.  Does Jesus really expect me to strive to become pure?  Besides it’s like everyone else at school and all around me gives in all the time, do I really have to work and discipline myself to live in my body as the temple of the Holy Spirit? / I know my marriage is not what it is supposed to be, but the thought of opening the wounds and doing the work to improve is just so scary.  It’s just easier to live with the status quo.  I thought marriage was “happy ever after.”  Is there really any value in suffering for my spouse, in suffering to improve my marriage? / My family is getting together for the holidays and that one relative will be there.  How do I handle his partner?  Where do I draw the line?  Why does it have to be so hard?  Does Jesus really expect me to take a stand?  And if so, how do I do that? / How could God let her get that disease?  Hasn’t she faced enough in her life?  And of all people, she is so faithful!  What value can there possibly be in such terrible suffering?

Quite easily do these and so many other examples of refusal to suffer come to our hearts and minds.  With good reason does St. Mark highlight the passion three times.  With good reason does he let us see the failures of the disciples each time.  We have to be aware of the unholy tendency to resist suffering in our life of faith.  To accept suffering in our own life means we are walking a proven pathway, chosen by Jesus himself, that has value and that leads to glory.  But the value is not just the ultimate goal of the kingdom for which we wait.  Rather, accepting suffering counteracts our tendency to think that suffering is a sign that God is distant or even absent.  Embracing suffering brings grace now to others and to us who draw closer to the Suffering Servant who came to give his life as a ransom for many.