Gospel Reflection for Oct. 17, 2021, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

While in last week’s Gospel we met a stranger who could not abandon his own sense of importance in order to be a disciple of Jesus, this week we see two of Jesus’ disciples who likewise have placed ambition over discipleship. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus to take seats of prominence in his kingdom: one at his right and the other at his left. They seem to be presuming that the missionary work of Jesus: healing the sick, raising the dead and exorcising demons, is perhaps just a distraction from the real mission, that of seizing control of Jerusalem and expelling the Roman hegemony. They also presume to take precedence over the others, including Simon Peter who is regarded even then as the disciple that Jesus has made the senior member of their company. Even if they grasped the other worldliness of the kingdom, they still sought personal ambition and importance over the others.

Jesus uses this occasion to again teach the disciples about the Cross on which he will suffer for their sake and ours. At the same time, he also reminds them that they will have a share in that Cross during their own lives and ministry.

The disciples James and John have already spent quite a bit of time with Jesus. They have witnessed miracles, heard some of the parables and are familiar with his teaching. They were part of the conversation we heard recounted a few weeks ago as the disciples argued among themselves about which of them was the greatest. They have left much to this point to follow Jesus. Abandoning their fishing nets and their father, they have the personal experience of sacrifice to become disciples. Even more so they saw the rich young man we encountered in last week’s Gospel walk away from Jesus when he was challenged to abandon all to follow Jesus, and a reminded about the necessity of going all-in with Jesus if they truly want to share in his mission. They know that there are consequences to their question and so theirs is a more informed, yet still misguided, request. With all of that, they are still seeking glory and recognition for themselves.

They, unlike many others, responded with a “yes” when Jesus asks if they can drink from his chalice. While Jesus may have not put it in those terms elsewhere, it is really the root question Jesus asks of all those seek to be his followers. Perhaps James and John are still thinking that this chalice is the splendid gem-gilded chalice of royalty used at great banquets. If so they might be thinking that their “yes” is a sign of their favor with Jesus, and that they indeed will be prominent in his kingdom. They do not yet realize that the chalice from which Jesus drinks, the very chalice which he pleads with his father not to drink during his great agony, is the chalice of martyrdom. Their blood, like his, is to be poured out in testimony and as a witness to the Kingdom of God.

Maybe their “yes” at this moment was naïve and incomplete, but they still made the walk to Jerusalem, and continued to follow him even when it became obvious that the elders of the people, and even the people themselves, were beginning to turn on Jesus. Even as Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus was arrested they remained and endured Jesus’ Passion and Feath. They were blessed to bear witness to the resurrection, and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Indeed they spent their lives in service to the kingdom, drinking from the chalice that they accepted in this moment with the Lord. Their greatness was seen not in a royal court but rather in spreading the Gospel and shedding their blood for the sake that kingdom.

They were imperfect when they said “yes” but they were perfected time and again by that “yes.”

In our own path of discipleship we are challenged to be ever mindful of the chalice that each of us is called to drink from if we are to truly follow Jesus. While for most of us this chalice is not that of a red or martyrdom in blood, it is nonetheless a call to white martyrdom. We offer our lives as an oblation to the Lord.

We ritually prepare ourselves to share in the sacrificial Cross of Christ as we share in the Eucharist. When in our sinfulness we yet say “yes” to the Body and Blood of Christ, we commit ourselves anew to drink from the same chalice from which Jesus drinks, that he promises to James and John, and offers to all the disciples – and therefore to us – at the Last Supper.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.