The Gospel today deals with the question of ambition once again. For the third time in Mark’s Gospel Jesus speaks about his forthcoming passion and death but once again his closest companions fail to understand what he is referring to.
The request by James and John underlines their belief that they still see Jesus as a revolutionary and that the Messiah will be a political force who will free Israel from oppression by force. They therefore ask Jesus to let them be first and second in the coming kingdom. They were seeking personal honour and their request reveals a lack of understanding about the true meaning of leadership. They seek power and prestige and fail to understand the things they have learned from Jesus, that it is not about where one sits in the hierarchy but rather how one serves that is important.
Jesus asks them if they are ready to undergo the same as what He is about to endure and failing to grasp the enormity of what this means they readily say that they are.
Naturally, the request of James and John angered the other disciples. They were upset that James and John had tried to gain some advantage over them. So, Jesus called them all together to give them yet another lecture on real leadership in the kingdom of God. Jesus further explains that to sit on his right hand and on his left “is not Mine to give”, for these places are reserved for those for whom they are prepared by his Father.
According to Jesus, greatness consists not in what we have, nor in what we can get from others but in what we give to others. The test of greatness in the reign of God is not how many people are in one’s service but how one may serve the many. Jesus thus overturns all our values, teaching us that true greatness consists in loving, humble, and sacrificial service. Jesus has identified authority with selfless service and loving sacrifice. For Jesus, true service means putting one’s gifts at the disposal of others. Service is sacrifice extending a helping hand to those in need translates love into meaningful deeds. Jesus clearly teaches that when power and authority are used in selfish ways, for personal gain, pleasure, or advantage, instead of on behalf of others, they cease to be Christian, and those who make this error become “like the leaders of the Gentiles.” St. Paul, in Rom 1:1, says: “From Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus.” No wonder the official title of the popes down through the centuries has been, “Servant of the servants of God”! For our contemporary, St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), greatness lay in the giving of her whole self to the very lowest, treating them as brothers and sisters and living close to them.
This is an important reminder to all of us what is required of us to be true disciples of Christ.