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Sunday Reflection: The first among you must be the servant of the all (Feb 25, 2018)


THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT

The first among you must be the servant of the all.  (Mathew 20:17-28)

Bible Text:

 

The Third Prediction of the Passion.

(17) As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve [disciples] aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, (18) “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, (19) and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

The Request of James and John.

(20) Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached him with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. (21) He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” (22) Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” (23) He replied, “My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left [, this] is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (24) When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. (25) But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. (26) But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; (27) whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. (28) Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

Interpretation

 

The Third Prediction of the Passion.

(17) As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve [disciples] aside by themselves, and said to them on the way,

 

Going up to Jerusalem

Jerusalem is on a high mountain region approximately 2,500 feet above sea level. This is where Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaack.  Regardless of where one was traveling from, he will be going up to reach Jerusalem. The climbing is especially felt when one is walking on the street that lead to Jerusalem. So, Jesus was climbing up to Jerusalem.

 

“Going up to Jerusalem” has also a spiritual meaning because it was the site of the temple of God, “the Mountain of the Lord’s House.” According to the prophesies, Jerusalem was the peak of the world from where the Lord’s instruction would come to all nations.  “In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it.” (Isiah 2:2). “Many nations shall come, and say, ‘Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, that we may walk in his paths.’ For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:2).

 

He took the twelve [disciples] aside

The context is clearer in Mark 10:32, “They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them what was going to happen to him.” The disciples were reluctant to go with Jesus to Jerusalem because they knew that the life of Jesus would be in danger there. However, Jesus was determined to go to offer his sacrifice. That is why Jesus was going ahead on the direction of Jerusalem, while the disciples were far behind him. Jesus called them to the roadside to share with them in private his mission and action plan so that the disciples would know what to expect.

 

(18) “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death,

 

The Son of Man

The Hebrew phrase "the Son of Man" means a human being. (Ezekiel 2:1). However, when the same phrase was used in the vision of Prophet Daniel (7:13), it acquired divine qualities because the son of man came with the clouds of heaven. Ordinary humans cannot travel on the clouds.  Jesus chose this phrase for himself.  So, it designates the human and divine nature of Jesus.

 

Will be handed over

Out of the three passion predictions of Jesus, this is the most detailed. The other two are Mathew 16:21–23 and 17:22–23.

 

The phrase denotes that Jesus was not subjecting himself to be arrested or soldiers finding him, but he was handed over to the enemies. Judas, who did that, was in the group of 12 when Jesus foretold this. However, the disciples did not understand it well at that time. Luke documents in 18:34, “The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.”

 

To the chief priests and the scribes

This was a reference to the Sanhedrin that consisted of 70 leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The full title was "the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders," (Matt. 16:21). This was the supreme court in religious and political matters of the Jews, although it was enormously restricted by the Roman authorities.

 

(19) and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

 

Jesus was sure of what all were going to happen in his end of life in this world. In fact, he took them for himself rather than bad things occurred to him. All the parts of this third prediction happened as follows: handed him over to the Gentiles (Mt 27:2), mocked (Mt 27:27–30), scourged (Mt 27:26), and crucified (Mt 27:31, 35), raised on the third day (Mt 28:6).  This was the prediction of Jesus on the humiliation and abuse that he was going to undergo from the pagan soldiers of Roman authorities. They expressed their hostility towards the Jews by shifting it on Jesus and making him the scapegoat.

 

Hand him over

After Judas handed over Jesus to the soldiers of Jewish leaders (Mathew 26:49), the soldiers handed him over to the chief priest and the Sanhedrin (Mathew 26:57), then Sanhedrin handed over Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor (Mathew 27:1-1–2), Pilate handed over Jesus to the public to decide between Jesus and Barabbas (Mathew 27: 17), Pilate then handed over Jesus to soldiers to crucify Jesus (Mathew 27: 26). Jesus predicted that his disciples will also face similar situation: “they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues.” (Mathew 10:17).

 

Crucified

Crucifixion was a most disgraceful and most brutal manner of death. It was originated probably by Assyrians and Babylonians and later developed by Persians in the sixth century BC. Romans perfected it and used it until the Christian Emperor Constantine I abolished it in the fourth century AD. According to Deuteronomy 21:23, anyone who was hanged on a tree was a curse of God. Jesus became the “curse” for us sinners. St. Paul wrote: “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,’” (Galatians 3:13). 

 

Raised

The resurrection of Jesus is attributed to the Most Holy Trinity. All the three persons of God are involved according to the Bible. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:4, “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.” Examples of other references of God the Father raising Jesus are: Acts 2:32; 2:24; 10:40; 13:30 and Galatians 1:1. Jesus himself came back to life according to John 2:19: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” In John 10:18, Jesus said that he had power to lay his life down, and power to take it up again.” St. Paul in Romans 8:11 and St. Peter in 1 Peter 3:18 specify that the Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead. Thus we see that the resurrection of Jesus is attributed to the Most Holy Trinity.

 

On the third day

Three days does not necessarily mean 72 hours or three full days. Jews of Jesus’ time counted even a part of the day as one day. So, the death of Jesus at 3:00 P.M. on Friday and burial before 6:00 P.M. was counted as the first day. Friday from 6:00 P.M. to Saturday 6:00 P.M. was the second day. Early morning before sunrise on Sunday was the third day.

 

The Request of James and John.

(20) Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached him with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.

 

Mother of the sons of Zebedee

Even though the request came from the mother, it was also from her sons. According to Mark 10:35, James and John were also active in this request. They might have asked their mother to intercede for them because they were afraid of the response of Jesus or the reaction of the other disciples. Bible scholars infer that the mother was Salome, the sister of Mary. So, she took the freedom to ask a favor from her nephew, Jesus.

 

Did him homage

Unlike others who came for favors from Jesus worshipped him or expressed their faith in Jesus, Salome after bowing down, presented her request. According to Mark 10:35 her sons James and John even introduced their request saying, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." This request from the wife and sons of Zebedee is a typical example of our prayer where we only present our request for favors from God without worshipping God in word and deed.

 

(21) He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”

 

The apostles came to realize the real nature of Jesus’ Kingdom only later. They believed that Jesus the Messiah would establish Davidic kingdom. As chosen people, they were competing for higher positions in that kingdom. The term “sit” in Bible denotes “to remain in a state of power over others.” By asking the favor of sitting on the both sides of Jesus, the mother and her sons wanted a place higher than all other apostles including Peter whom Jesus took with the two sons to important locations. Jesus had promised apostles that they would reign in the kingdom he was going to establish. (Mathew 19:28). However, James and John wanted to be the first among the apostles.

 

Whenever Jesus presented his upcoming passion and death, the disciples were debating on who would be greatest among them to succeed Jesus or to be in the highest rank with him. This shows their worldly desires before the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them.

 

 (22) Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.”

 

You do not know

You can mean singular or plural. Here it is plural and addressed to James and John. They are replying to the question.

 

Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?

The question is again addressed not to the mother but to the two sons.

 

Cup in the Bible is a symbol of life and is used in a positive or negative sense. In the positive sense, a cup can mean whatever God fills in one’s life (Psalm 11:6 16:5), or the blessings of life that God provides (Psalm 23:5), or a thank-offering from man to God (Exodus 29:40, Psalm 116:13).

 

The "drinking cup" has special importance in the Bible. Just like many people have their personal cup at home for regular use, some Biblical characters had the same.  Pharaoh had his own cup and a personal cup bearer. Joseph, the second in command of Pharaoh, had a silver cup and he used to play trick on his brothers. For Jesus, he used the term “cup” in a spiritual sense to signify his mission of passion, death and resurrection.

 

Cup signified also the wine that it contained because cup was to hold wine in it. So, when Jesus said, “Can you drink the cup?” the meaning was could they drink the wine that he was going to drink. Sharing one cup of wine by the groom and bride was a Hebrew tradition of betrothal. When the groom offered the wine and bride drank from it, she was agreeing to share all the joys and hardships of his life. In that sense, Jesus was asking them whether they were ready to share with his sufferings as well.

 

 (23) He replied, “My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left[, this] is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

 

My cup you will indeed drink

James and John, along with other apostles fulfilled this prophesy of Jesus. James was the first martyr among Apostles. (Acts 12:2). His martyrdom happened 14 years after the death of Jesus in 44 A.D. by Herod Agrippa I, son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great. “He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword” (Acts 12:2) to please the Jews who wanted to suppress the rapid growth of Christ’s disciples. 

 

John was the younger brother of James. That is why his name is often mentioned after the name of John. John centralized his ministry in Ephesus, the western coast of Asia Minor. During the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96), an attempt was made to kill John by plunging him into boiled oil. But he was unhurt by God’s intervention.  John was then exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation based on the vision he had there. After Domitian's death, John returned to Ephesus during the reign of Trajan. John wrote the gospel while he was in Ephesus and he died there around A.D. 100 at an old age.

 

Not mine to give

Though Jesus did not promise what the two disciples asked along with their mother, Jesus granted what he could during his public ministry. The two were among the first four (Peter, Andrew, James and John) selected as the initial disciples of Jesus and were prominent among the others (Mark 13:3). Peter, James, and John were an intimate group of Jesus. They alone were admitted at some prominent occasions like the miracle of the raising of Jairus's daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2; Mathew 17:1; Luke 9:28), and the Agony in Gethsemane (Mathew 26:37; Mark 14:33).

 

For whom it has been prepared by my Father.

This is an example of Jesus' submission to the Father who controls everything. (1 Cor. 15:27-28). Jesus knew and respected his powers and his limits.

 

(24) When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers.

 

All the twelve apostles of Jesus were obsessed with worldly positions which is quite natural. Two of them trying to take advantage excluding others also was a normal human behavior. The ten were afraid that if Jesus had granted the request, they would become subservient to the two. This gave an opportunity for Jesus to present the style of leadership he wanted to instill in them.

 

(25) But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt.

 

Jesus here acknowledged the worldly leadership style. But he wanted his disciples just the opposite of this.

 

(26) But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; (27) whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.

 

Jesus was not criticizing his disciples over their ambition for greater positions. His point was that they should aspire higher positions in heaven by being servant of others in this world for the sake of God. Christian leadership is quite the opposite of the worldly leadership. Instead of lording over the burdens on others, a disciple of Jesus must be taking up the burdens and serving others. Instead of exhibiting authority over the subjects, the Christian leader should serve like a servant or a slave. Jesus demonstrated this in a dramatic way by washing the feet of his disciples at the last supper. (John 13: 4-15).

 

(28) Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

To serve

Jesus was at the service of his family until he left home for his public life, and then at the service of all humanity. He served humanity by preaching, extending his healing ministry to all who asked his favor. He never demanded any service from others.

 

To give his life as a ransom for many.

Ransom is a payment made for our redemption. The word "ransom" means a price demanded or paid for the redemption of a slave or a captive. By the fall of first parents, we are captives to sin like a child born to slave parents. We are under condemnation (Ephesians 2:3; Romans 3:9-20, Romans 3:23; 1 John 5:19) and curse (Galatians 3:10). A slave child cannot rescue himself regardless of how much he tries. So, God came among us to rescue us. Jesus suffered and died for us giving his life as a ransom for our liberation from eternal damnation.

 

For many

The term “many” is a reference to Isaiah 53:11-12 where it did not mean for few but the outcome of Christ's redemption. Jesus used the same word when he instituted the Holy Eucharist. After blessing the cup, he said: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” (Mark 14:24; Mathew 26:28). The rabbis and the Qumran community used this term for the community of faith or the chosen people. St. Paul also use “all” and “many” as interchangeable terms in his letter to Romans verses 18 and 19. So the redemption of Jesus is intended for all. Many will find salvation from him.

 

Message:

 

1.     Jesus’ journey was directed toward Jerusalem, the religious center of the Jews, and one day a center for all children of God. Our spiritual journey is always to our parish church and through it to our God. Lent reminds us to make this journey more frequent and meaningful.

 

2.     While heading towards Jerusalem, Jesus was sure of the brutal torture and painful crucifixion he will undergo. However, he was also sure of his resurrection and accomplishment of his mission. Every missionary and Christian that face religious persecution are also undergoing similar experience. We need to pray for them and support them. We also shall not give up our faith and hope amid challenges in Christian living.

 

3.     Prayer is not just asking favors from God like the woman of this event. It also involves worship to God and our commitment for the Kingdom of God even during persecutions as Jesus demanded from the two disciples.

 

4.     At the Holy Mass, we share the one cup of Jesus meaning that we, as the Christian community, make a commitment with Jesus to share our life of hardships and joys for the Kingdom of God. After the Holy Mass we leave the church to fulfill our mission that we receive from God in our daily lives.

 

5.     Christian leadership position is for service. That is why popes from Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) use the phrase “Servant of the Servants of God” to introduce themselves. Whatever be our status in the family, work place, community, or in the church, we should consider ourselves as the servants of the God and of others. That attitude will bring joy and satisfaction in our lives.

 

 

 

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