“Can you drink of the cup from which I drink?”
James and John in Sunday’s Gospel passage ask Jesus, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Such a question is familiar in children’s stories and fairy tales. For example, in the Arabian Nights, the genie in the bottle newly freed will give the liberator anything he wants. In a certain sense, the question shows a naiveté on the part of the disciples; an immaturity in their faith that will be challenged to grow as they journey with Jesus to Jerusalem.
James and John ask Jesus for something they desire; namely that they will sit one on His right, the other on His left in His glory. The desire they have is for positions of honor. Sitting near the king at the table was a great honor, sitting next to him the greatest honor. Being designated as such they would be distinguished and set apart from all other disciples. No wonder the other apostles were upset at James and John for asking for such distinction.
Jesus’ response calls James and John to focus on their purpose in life. Is it gaining honor or prestige? Is it having power or control? Is it gaining wealth and glory? Yet rather than ask these questions Jesus asks, “Can you drink of the cup from which I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
The questions draw the disciples into a reflection on discipleship and life. The “cup” and “baptism” of which Jesus speaks are references to His passion, His self-emptying love. Jesus’ life is one of mission. His revelation of the Father in that perfect relationship of loving obedience is happening now and is ongoing.
While he does not speak of a future event saying, “Can you drink of the cup that I will drink?” but “Can you drink of the cup from which I drink?”, Jesus is on His way to the cross through which He will be glorified; to share in his glory is to share in His cross.
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah recalls the suffering servant. Isaiah says that the servant will justify many through suffering “and their guilt he shall bear.” Jesus is the suffering servant who frees us from sin through His suffering, namely through His passion. So when James and John ask the question on position in the Kingdom, Jesus responds by asking if they can join Him in His mission. For it is only through sharing in His passion that they will be able to share in His glory.
After the interchange with James and John, Jesus teaches the apostles about authority and “rule.” The “rule” of His kingdom is one of service. Jesus tells the apostles that they should not exercise authority as the rulers of the Gentiles who “lord it over them.” “Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The service that the disciples will offer is one that is reflective of Jesus’ service, the laying down of His life. When Jesus asks James and John His questions, they respond immediately, “We can.” The immediacy of their response coupled with their original request suggests that they do not yet fully understand what is being asked of them. Jesus’ teaching on service clarifies the question. Jesus is asking them to lay down their lives as he is laying down His life in service.
As disciples of Jesus we too are asked to share in His work of redemption by laying down our lives in love for others. The manner in which most of us do this is in acts of charity. Recognizing the need of those around us to experience the love of Christ and responding through kindness, compassion and care are ways in which we respond to Jesus’ question to us: “Can you be baptized as I am baptized?”
The task may be daunting at times. We might feel that we are weak and unable to offer ourselves to the extent Jesus asks. At these times we can find encouragement, consolation and confidence in the passage from Hebrews used as the second reading for Sunday’s Mass. The reading reminds us of the empathy that Jesus, our High Priest, has for us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.”
Jesus is with us on this journey of faith. As we grow in discipleship and our response to Him who calls us to serve, He is with us every step of the way, and He understands.
Jesus called James and John along with the other apostles to lay down their lives with Him in the service of others. He calls us to do the same.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.