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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Finding Good News in our Need for Repentance

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Did you ever notice how often Jesus’ disciples get it wrong in the gospels? This is nowhere more true than for Mark. As we notice in today’s gospel, James and John – but really all of Jesus’ close followers – seem to be missing the whole point of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus connects greatness with self-giving service, but they (and we) can be so quick to revert to seeking power and acclaim. At times, one wonders why Jesus picks such apparent dullards. Hopefully, though, we soon recognize ourselves in Jesus’ closest followers – then, with a small chuckle at our own expense, hope blossoms anew within us.  

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October 17, 2021: the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 

Isaiah 53.10-11 

Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22 

Hebrews 4.14-16 

Mark 10.35-45 

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A reflection by Jon Schum 

Today’s gospel passage includes the third of three predictions of the passion and death of Jesus.  Along with the disciples, Jesus is approaching Jerusalem and predicts what will happen there:  Jesus will be handed over to the religious authorities, condemned to death, suffer greatly, and be put to death.  Jesus adds that after three days, he shall rise.   

Preceding this prediction is the request of James and John to occupy the highest positions of authority as they expect Jesus is about to liberate Jerusalem and restore the kingdom of David.  Their request is brash and ill-conceived.  The other ten are indignant at them and likely feel outflanked by James and John.  

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are not always portrayed in the best light.  They miss the point, can’t see beyond the moment, don’t listen very well, fall asleep in the garden, and ultimately run away when it matters most.  Their insular and shortsighted tendencies are on display in today’s gospel episode.     

Jesus is clear: this is not the reign of Jesus; it is the reign of God.  “You must drink of the cup I drink of; you must be immersed in the baptism as I am.”  Taking Jesus very concretely, the two reply, “we can do that,” to which Jesus responds: You will indeed do so, but not on your terms.  “If you wish to be great, you must serve the rest.  Whoever wants to be first, must serve the needs of all.” 

There seems to be a larger context for this passage.  The first prediction of Jesus’ passion and death (Mark 8.31-33) follows Peter’s declaration of faith.  At that point, Peter immediately rebukes Jesus – implying harsh criticism and disapproval.  Jesus in turn rebukes Peter: “you are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.” 

The first and third predictions of the passion are bookended by miracle stories involving blind persons.  The first (Mark 8.22-26) is the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida.  The second miracle story, immediately following today’s gospel passage, is the healing of the blind Bartimaeus.  Physical blindness was construed as divine punishment, the result of sin.  Reaching out with compassion Jesus heals both blind persons who display a deeper inner sight that the evangelist recognizes as faith.  Lack of faith, to Jesus, is a worse kind of blindness – the kind of blindness exhibited in Peter’s dismissal of Jesus’s predictions and James and John’s jockeying for privilege and power. 

Today’s gospel passage is Jesus’ call to servant discipleship.  This servanthood is a sacrificial love and the pouring out of the self in generous self-giving.  Greatness in the Reign of God is not commensurate with authority, power, and importance.   

Early Christian believers saw the suffering and selfless sacrifice of Jesus prefigured in the mysterious figure of the suffering servant in the oracles of the prophet Isaiah. The first reading today comes from the end of the fourth of these songs, which is also the first reading for the liturgy of Good Friday.  This long-suffering and faithful servant of God is the innocent victim whose voluntary suffering atones for the sins of many.  God acknowledges the greatness of the suffering servant, who “shall see light in the fulness of days.” 

In today’s second reading, the Letter to the Hebrews positions Jesus on a journey of another kind.  Like the high priests of old who passed through different spaces in the Temple and into the Holy of Holies (where it was believed heaven encountered earth), so Jesus, as the Firstborn of God, journeys through the heavenly realm and into the living presence of God.  Yet, fully human, Jesus understands our struggles.  Jesus journeys with us and invites us too, to the throne of grace at our every moment of need.   

The point which Jesus makes is this: life is the cup from which we drink.  While at times it overflows with goodness (Psalm 23:5), it is also the cup of pain and heartache, failure and disenchantment, of loneliness and isolation.  The cup is sometimes the cup of deep grief, of disappointment or even of despair.  It was the cup that even Jesus prayed would pass.   

We take up the cup and navigate these passages in life because we are, in a profound and often unrealized way, in the company of Jesus.  In the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is THE great high priest, who enters fully into the holy sanctuary of the human condition and is well acquainted with our struggles.  In Christ, we are offered mercy and favor and help: timely help, grace.   

So, there are those times when we are not in charge or in control, when we are not winning, not number one, not the best – when we feel vulnerable, broken, inadequate or unworthy.  When you can come through to the other side still hopeful, trustful, and loving, and content, you have learned something about the gospel, about what Jesus is saying here, and you have something extraordinary to give to the neighbor and the world.  In finding ourselves last, we may notice the neighbor who is first.   

In her book Sacred Thresholds, Paula D’Arcy tells a story about providing an evening program for women prison inmates.  Before she left home, Paula received specific instructions about what to do before going through the prison’s security system.  Consequently, when she arrived at the prison’s parking lot, she complied with the instructions in this way: 

I popped the trunk of my car and removed every piece of jewelry, including my watch.  I threw in my pocketbook; I removed my car key from a key ring bursting with keys, each one representing entry into the busyness of my life.  From my wallet I retrieved my license.  It was a strange exercise with a great deal of power….Your education and degrees no longer serve you.  No one cares.  Your level of income is irrelevant.  Your pretenses are dangerous.  Nothing will get through the metal detectors, but who you really are. 

The most valuable asset we bring to our labors is our self.  The more we open the door to our depths and learn from what we find there, the richer the gift, the greater the service, we bring to others.  And humbly, we may be amazed to find there is as much to receive as there is to give. 

There are several interpretations as to why the disciples are portrayed so negatively in this gospel.  One view is that the Gospel of Mark was written with vivid memories of persecution, possibly the one under Nero, following the great fire in Rome.  Some Christians wavered from the faith to escape martyrdom, often betraying even loved ones.  The figure of the failing disciples would be a powerful sign of hope.  These failures ultimately were transformed into good news for a repentant community struggling with its past.  So, the evangelist holds a giant mirror before us and declares, “Look, if there is hope for the disciples, there is hope for you.”  And this is good news.  

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Jon Schum and his husband Ron Lacro are longtime Dignity Boston members. Jon has served on its board and liturgy committee and is one of the chapter's ordained presiders. For many years he supervised and provided arts-based therapeutic programming for an elder services agency in Boston. He is currently a co-facilitator of the Aging with Dignity caucus.

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