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Reflections for the XXIX Sunday

Central theme: Today’s Scripture readings describe leadership as the sacrificial service done for others and offer Jesus as the best example.

Homily starter anecdotes: Sir, I am a Corporal!” During the American Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers who were busy pulling out a horse carriage stuck in deep mud. Their officer was shouting instructions to them while making no attempt to help. The stranger who witnessed the scene asked the officer why he wasn’t helping. With great anger and dignity, the officer replied, “Sir, I am a Corporal!” The stranger dismounted from his horse and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers himself. When the job was completed, he turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this, and don’t have enough men to do it, inform your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.” Too late, the proud Corporal recognized General Washington. Washington understood that those who aspire to greatness or rank first among others must serve the needs of all. America’s first president found himself in a situation that invited him to demonstrate servant leadership. Where did Washington learn such leadership skills? I have no doubt he learned them here, in these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” The young corporal had these words modeled for him by the man at the top. Jesus’ disciples, likewise, receive from their leader a picture of servanthood. (

Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading is a Messianic prophecy taken from the Fourth Servant Song in the second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It tells how the promised Messiah will save mankind by sacrificing himself as the atonement for our sins. Jesus has done this sacrificial service of love for us as the Suffering Servant by giving his life on the cross as an offering for sininterceding for us and taking our punishment on himself.    The second reading, taken from the letter to the Hebrews, tells us that, as a God-man and mediator-High Priest, Jesus has offered a fitting sacrifice to God his Father by offering himself as ransom to liberate us from the slavery of sin. In the time of Jesus, ransom was the price paid to free someone from slavery.  Sometimes the ransomer offered himself as a substitute for the slave, as Jesus did. The reading also speaks of a high priest who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness because he has been tested in every way, though sinless, and so we can “confidently” hope for God’s mercy. Today’s Gospel explains how Jesus has accomplished his mission of saving mankind from the slavery of sin by becoming the “Suffering Servant.” Here, Jesus challenges his followers to become great by serving others with sacrificial agape love: “Whoever wishes to be great must be a servant.”  Jesus commands us to liberate others as he has freed all of us, by giving ourselves to them in loving and humble service.

First reading, Isaiah 53:10-11, explained: The first reading about the “Suffering Servant” prepares us to hear today’s Gospel teaching (Mark 10:35-45), on ambition versus humility. Jesus predicts, for the third time, that he is going to accomplish his mission by suffering, dying and rising. The concluding words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, about giving his life as a ransom for many, refer to the Messianic prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. This reading forms part of one of the famous four passages from the second part of Isaiah known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant, in which Jesus sees aspects of his life and mission foreshadowed.  In Isaiah, the Suffering Servant probably refers to a single individual, or to the remnant of the faithful within Israel, or to some other religious reformer who will bring about peace and restoration.  Isaiah speaks of God crushing the Suffering Servant (Jesus) with suffering.  “By his sufferings shall My servant justify many.” We are invited to see the death of Jesus as the fulfillment of this passage because Jesus offers His life as a willing sacrifice which for our sins, making us righteous by taking our sins away. Out of love, Jesus the servant lives and dies so that the unjust may know God’s justification.   The passage also gives us the assurance that if we work for righteousness, we will be able to receive the loving care of our Father, God, who will never abandon us.

Second Reading, Hebrews 4:14-16explained: The Letter to the Hebrews was written to bolster the Faith of Jewish converts to Christianity.  They suffered the contempt of former Jewish friends who had not been converted, and they felt nostalgia for the institutions of Judaism, such as rituals, sacrifices, the priesthood etc.  This letter tries to show them how they still have all these “missing” things, and in a better form in Christianity than they had them in Judaism. While the first reading from Isaiah prophesies the necessary and sacrificial role of God’s servant, Jesus, in the plan of salvation, the author of Hebrews affirms Jesus’ priestly activity.  Since the Jewish converts to Christ did not have the priests they were used to, the author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is the true High Priest, superior to and far better than the priests of the time because He, the Son of God, shares our fragile, suffering humanity.  Thus, we can “approach his throne of grace confidently to receive mercy,” because Jesus understands us.  Later, in Heb 9:10-14, St. Paul presents Jesus as both sacrificial victim and priest.  In his death and Resurrection, Jesus functions both as the Priest who sacrifices the victim and as the Victim who is sacrificed.

Gospel exegesis:  The context:  Our Gospel reading for today is another classic text on the question of ambition.  For the third time, (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:32), Jesus predicts his own death.  In spite of Jesus’ two previous predictions, James and John are still thinking of Jesus as a revolutionary freedom-fighter. They share their contemporaries’ Jewish belief that the Messiah will be a political king, sitting on David’s throne and ruling over a re-united Israel.  They are sure that the purpose of Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem is to overthrow the Roman rulers.  Hence, they want an assurance from Jesus that he will make them his first- and second-in-command in his messianic kingdom.  According to Middle Eastern custom, the seats on the right and left sides of the host were the places of honor, granted to his closest friends and associates, or those he wished particularly to recognize.

The high price of servant leadership: The request of James and John reveals their lack of understanding of true leadership.  They are looking for positions of power and prestige.  They think that leadership comes from where you sit rather than from how you serve.  Jesus gives them a sharp rebuke, saying, “You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They answer Jesus’ question with a very quick, “You bet we can!” That’s the kind of answer you give when you envision the ‘cup’ in question to be a bejeweled golden goblet filled with good wine at the feast of Jesus’ inauguration as the replacement for the Caesar.” (Center for Excellence in Preaching; online). “The request of James and John for a share in the glory (Mark 10:35-37) must of necessity involve a share in Jesus’ sufferings, the endurance of tribulation and suffering for the Gospel” (Notes to the New American Bible). The cup was a symbol of the life experience allotted to each person by God. To “drink the cup” Jesus drinks is to accept the reality of suffering and to do God’s will in the midst of it, as Jesus did in Gethsemane and on Calvary. Those who follow the way of Jesus and seek to imitate his example of servant leadership must be willing even to suffer for others. During royal banquets, it was customary for an ancient king to hand the cup to his guests.  Thus, the cup became a metaphor for the life and experiences that God gives to men.  Jesus insisted that his disciples must drink from his cup if they expected to reign with him in his kingdom.  The cup he had in mind was a bitter one, involving crucifixion.  For Jesus, to take this cup was to take on himself God’s judgment intended for us.  Baptism was also linked to the divine judgment that will come as a result of human sinfulness.  Jesus had in mind the cup of his own sacrificial death and the baptism of fire which lay before him in Jerusalem.

Trouble-shooting: Without fully understanding what Jesus meant, James and John quickly affirmed that they could share in their master’s cup and baptism.  They had no understanding of the personal cost that lay behind these two images. [History tells us that James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2), and John suffered deeply when he heard regularly for years, of the persecution of his fellow Christians, while he himself was forced into exile.]  Naturally, the request of James and John angered the other disciples.  They were upset that James and John had tried to gain some advantage over them.  So, Jesus called them all together to give them yet another lecture on real leadership in the kingdom of God. Jesus further explains that to sit on his right hand and on his left is not his to give, except to those for whom it is prepared by his Father. The passage thus declares that “Christ would give rewards to his followers; but only to such as should be entitled to them according to the purpose of his Father.” (Notes on the New Testament)

A challenge to achieve greatness through humble, sacrificial service: Jesus tells his disciples plainly what his mission is, how he is going to accomplish it and what should be the criteria of greatness among his disciples.  He summarizes his mission in one sentence: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  It is in service and humility, Jesus says, that one will find true greatness in the eyes of God. Jesus also explains that he is going to accomplish his mission by undergoing crucifixion, offering himself as a sacrifice to save people from their sins.  Here, he challenges his apostles to share not only his power, but his service, by sacrificing themselves for others as he will do.  According to Jesus, greatness consists not in what we have, nor in what we can get from others but in what we give to others.  The CEO in Jesus’ kingdom is the one who serves the needs of all the others. The test of greatness in the reign of God is not how many people are in my service but how I may serve the many.  Jesus thus overturns all our values, teaching us that true greatness consists in loving, humble, and sacrificial service. He has identified authority with selfless service and loving sacrifice.  For Jesus, true service means putting our gifts at the disposal of others.  Service is sacrifice:  extending a helping hand to those in need translates love into meaningful deeds. Jesus clearly teaches that when power and authority are used in selfish ways, for personal gain, pleasure or advantage, instead of on behalf of others, they cease to be Christian, and become “like the leaders of the Gentiles.”  St. Paul, in Rom 1:1, says: “From Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus.”  No wonder the official title of the popes down through the centuries has been, “Servant of the servants of God”!  For our contemporary, St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), greatness lay in the giving of her whole self to the very lowest, treating them as brothers and sisters and living close to them.

Authority exercised by sacrificial service: Very often, people in authority act as if others exist only to serve them.  Even in our democratic form of government, our elected officials, although called “public servants,” frequently strut around like monarchs, interested in serving their own appetites for power, prestige, and wealth.  They forget the fact that authority is different from power.  Power is something a person has and forces on people.  Authority is something one first receives from a higher power (ultimately God Who is the Source of Authority). That authority is recognized in one by the people who choose, receive and obey one as their Leader. One can exercise authority over those one leads only through service and sacrifice, for this is God’s own pattern, shown in Christ Jesus.  When people see that a person has their best interests at heart and is willing to sacrifice and serve them, they will be willing to follow.  That’s real leadership and authority.  Jesus sees authority as an opportunity to serve others rather than to promote his own honor and glory.  Jesus connects authority with selfless service.  He considers authority exercised without sacrificial love as merely self-service.

Life messages: 1) We are challenged to give our lives in loving service to others. To become an authentic disciple of Jesus means to put ourselves in the humble, demanding role of servant to others, to seek intentionally the happiness and fulfillment of those we love regardless of the cost to ourselves.  The best place to begin the process of “self-giving” service is in our own homes and in the workplace.  We have to look upon our education, training, and experience as preparation for service to others.  Whatever may be our place in society — whether important or unimportant — we can serve.  We should learn to serve with a smile.  This is possible whether we are in military service, social service, law, medical service, government or business. We get chances to serve others every day- nurses serve their patients, teachers their students, parents serve the needs of their children, and spouses serve each another.  In our parishes, we are also called to serve not to be served. We can here apply the famous “ask not” of John Kennedy: “Ask not what your parish, what your Church, your God can do for you; rather ask what you can do for your parish, for your Church, your God!” If we want to be leaders, we must learn to be available, accountable, and vulnerable.  This triad — availability, accountability, and vulnerability — qualifies us for what Robert Greenleaf has called Servant Leadership. “Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier.” —Albert Schweitzer

2) We serve by suffering:  In today’s Gospel, Jesus connects service with suffering. Suffering and service go hand in hand.  First, service always involves suffering because one can’t help another without some personal sacrifice.  Second, God always invites those who suffer to put their suffering at the service of others by uniting it with the salvific suffering of Jesus.  Third, we must learn to be sensitive to the suffering of those around us.  One way to cultivate this sensitivity is to focus on the needs of others rather than on our own needs.  Another way is through prayer, as explained in St. Francis of Assisi’s famous Prayer for Peace.

3) We are invited to drink from the cup of Christ’s suffering: People often tailor their religious beliefs to fit their own needs.  In Christianity, this represents a false approach.  The Church needs true disciples who are cross-bearers and servants.  They seek and follow Christ wherever he leads.  A happy family is the result of true sacrifice and humble service.  The husband and wife sacrifice convenience, comfort, and time.  There can be no success without sacrifice.  We are challenged to drink the cup of Jesus by laying down our lives in humble and sacrificial service for others, just as Jesus did.

4) We are invited to servant leadership: We are a community of equals and we share in the responsibilities of being community.  In order to be effective, we need leaders – both ordained, as ministerial priests, and lay.  These servants have been raised up from among us to call us to order, to be the ground on which the rest of us can move around, refining our lives as followers of Jesus.  We need leaders who will help us to form a relationship with God and with each other that will assist us to become what we must be in order to wash one another’s feet.  We require leaders to call us to the ways of social justice.  We need leaders who tie us to other communities and groups who share similar values.  Finally, we need leaders who can break open the word for us, who can lead us in our prayer, offering us on the altar, and who can draw us together as sacrament.  No one of us possesses all that we as a community need.  Our job as servant leaders is to evoke, to recognize, to nurture, to celebrate and to help unify the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work here in our community. (Fr. Anthony Kadavil).

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