Whenever I read this part of St. Mark’s gospel from which our reading is taken today, I get a mixed message. It has to do with the disciples, John and James. They and the other disciples have just been informed by Jesus that their journey to Jerusalem would end with Jesus being tried and condemned to death and then be raised from the dead three days later.
In fact this is the third time that the disciples have heard this same message (almost in the very same words) in this center section of Mark’s gospel. Each time they appear unfazed by the serious content of what Jesus says.
Each time they dramatically misunderstand what Jesus tells them. Then Jesus addresses their lack of understanding by telling them what it means for them to be his disciples. They are to serve the needs of others and to uncenter their lives by being like a child, or like a servant, or to exercise their authority by not lording it over others.
The gospel today shows the Sons of Zebedee totally missing the point of Jesus’ serious announcement. They follow his prediction of the dire events awaiting him and them in Jerusalem with an incredibly ill-conceived request that they would sit on Jesus’ right and left in the Kingdom. They introduce this by asking Jesus, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” How crass is that? They even irritated the other 10 who recognized how the brothers were missing the point.
So my first reaction to these misunderstanders is to be severely judgmental about their lack of good common sense regarding Jesus’ gentle reminders of what is to happen to him. How could they focus on themselves at an important time like this in Jesus’ life, the very person they are allegedly following?
Then I have a second reaction: to see the two brothers as models for me and my own misunderstanding of who Jesus is. They reveal examples of my own lack of focus on Jesus and how I put myself in the center where I don’t belong. In reality it is Jesus who needs to be in the center for me and that I often co-opt that center place like James and John did in this part of the gospel.
As each of us works out the patterns of our own call to discipleship with Jesus, we get it sometimes and at other times miss the message like the brothers. That’s why it is crucial for us contemporary disciples to get our focus straight. James and John and the others ultimately did fully understand, but it took the terrible yet wonderful events in Jerusalem (Jesus’ death and resurrection) to finally secure the message in their hearts.
Can we too let the Paschal Mystery (Jesus’ death and resurrection) which we celebrate each time we gather for Mass become the center of our lives? Each Eucharist reminds us of the reality of our union with Christ and with one another in faith. That’s our invitation as disciples – to let Jesus take center stage for us and to accept the invitation to live like him, for others. Lord, help us not to misunderstand.