29th Sunday of Ordinary Time – B • October 17, 2021 at St. Luke’s

A teenage boy goes to his dad and asks if he can borrow the car for the afternoon. But instead of saying yes, the dad asks his son if he’ll mow the lawn. The boy says yes hoping that in doing so his dad will be more likely to let him take the car. But then his dad says, “Great, there’s the lawn mower. Now I’m going to take the car and go golfing.”
Perhaps the son would have felt a little tricked? I wonder if that’s how James and John felt – maybe there was a little of, “We just had to go and open our big mouths, didn’t we?” Not only did they not get what they had asked for, they also got a lot more than they bargained for. Instead of getting the seats of honor they had asked for, Jesus offered them the baptism with which he was baptized and the cup from which he was to drink. And the baptism was a baptism into suffering, and the cup from which Jesus drank was the chalice of his Passion which he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane would pass him by.
The greatness that James and John were seeking from Jesus was a purely human greatness – they were looking for the seats of honor next to Jesus when he came into his kingdom. But Jesus takes everything and turns it on its head. Jesus reveals to us that true greatness in God’s eyes is essentially the opposite of the greatness of this world. True greatness in God’s eyes is not to be found in power or prestige or pleasure or possessions. Instead, true greatness is to be found in the opposite of all that. It is to be found in becoming lower in the eyes of human beings. It is to be found in service and in sacrifice.
Every God-given vocation, in order to be lived as God intended it, means becoming the servant of others. It means giving of oneself to others. It means sacrificing our own desires for the sake of another. Certainly this applies to the vocation to marriage: the husband and wife subordinate their own desires for the sake of their spouse. It applies to the vocation of parenthood: the parents give up their time and their freedom for the sake of their children. The days of sleeping in on weekends – or even getting a full night’s sleep – are over as soon as a baby comes along. It applies to the priesthood and religious life. The priest sacrifices his own desires for the sake of his parishioners. The religious man or woman gives of himself or herself in service to others. And the higher you go, the more you must lower yourself, the greater the level of service and sacrifice becomes. One of the pope’s titles is “Servant of the servants of God.” It is the inverse of human greatness. Following God’s will, whatever it may be, means no longer living for oneself; it means everything that we have been given has been given to us to be put at the service of others.
Of course, the analogy of the boy asking for the car from his dad falls short – as does all human language – in describing the relationship between God and us. It is of course the father’s prerogative in this scenario to take the car and go golfing – it’s his car. And asking his son to mow the grass is not imposing an undue burden on his son but rather teaches him responsibility. But in order for it to be a more accurate analogy, the father would also be working on the yard, pulling the weeds, spreading the fertilizer, and so on.
That’s because the service and sacrifice that Jesus calls us to is a participation in his own life of service and sacrifice. The Lord does not ask of us anything that he himself did not do. We do not suffer anything that Jesus himself did not suffer. Our second reading from Hebrews reminds us of that: “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, but without sin.” And our first reading from Isaiah reminds us that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, “was crushed in infirmity.” In becoming man, Jesus entered into our human experience with all of its pain and suffering and temptations. He experienced how difficult it is to sacrifice one’s own will and embrace the will of the Father in a way that we cannot fully comprehend. No, giving of oneself to others is not always easy. No, it’s not always easy subordinating our own desires to another for the sake of the other. No, sacrifice is not easy. But Jesus experienced all of that too.
But the baptism with which Jesus was baptized and the cup from which he drank do not just entail sacrifice. Even more than that, they are an entry into the life and love of God Himself. In baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. And the cup from which Jesus drank is not just the chalice of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane but also the chalice at the Last Supper, in which Jesus shares with us his own Precious Blood. He shares with us his very life; he pours out all his love for us. It is his own blood that he shares with us in the Eucharist. And his blood gives us life; it nourishes us; and it gives us the grace and the strength we need to serve others and to bear the suffering of this life.
So, Jesus did not trick James and John into accepting a life of sacrifice and suffering. Rather He let them – and He let us – participate in his own suffering for the sake of others. And in Baptism and the Eucharist he gives us the strength we need to live out God’s will for us. So let us go forward to receive the life and love of Jesus in the Eucharist, so that we will become truly great in God’s eyes.