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Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Isaiah 53: 10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

By Father Timothy P. Schehr

During His earthly ministry, many people approached Jesus to ask for favors. Some wanted to be healed of an illness of one kind or another; some wanted to hear or see or walk; some wanted Jesus to heal others or even raise them back to life.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, two of our Lord’s own disciples approach Him with a request of their own. Because these two, the sons of Zebedee, were with Jesus as He preached and worked miracles for others, we expect them to ask for something really significant such as spiritual healing for themselves. But, what do James and John ask for? They want the places of honor when Jesus arrives as His hour of glory.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit to just a little bit of embarrassment for James and John. After all, how could they do such a thing? Hadn’t they been listening at all to what Jesus has been saying?

To their credit, at least James and John understood that Jesus was establishing a king­dom. Their only fault — a major one we must admit — was to think of the kingdom in mere earthly terms. As Jesus must explain to them, earthly rulers make sure everyone else feels their authority. But, the kingdom of God is not that kind of kingdom.

But, James and John are so thrilled at the possibility of sharing earthly greatness with Jesus that they declare their willingness to drink from the same cup Jesus will drink from. They believe they are ready to take on any hardships for their brand of glory. Jesus, of course, is talking about giving His life for a kingdom that is not of this world. If James and John had understood this, it is not very likely they would have been so eager to make this request. In fact, when Jesus does arrive at the hour of His glory, there are two beside Him, one at His right and one at His left. Not James and John, but two others crucified with Jesus.

Clearly, the sons of Zebedee still have a lot to learn about the kingdom of heaven. We can only imagine the puzzled looks on their faces when Jesus patiently explains to them “whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

Later on, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles understood the meaning of the kingdom Jesus preached about. And, they understood the Scriptures that foreshadowed the suffering the death Jesus had to endure. One of those Scriptures is the first reading for this Sunday. It belongs to a collection of oracles from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant of God who “gives His life as an offering for sin.”

In words that are at first startling to hear, the oracle says, “The Lord was pleased to crush Him in infirmity.” What kind of God would be pleased at that? The kind of God who sees the plan of salvation being fulfilled in the suffering of heaven’s faithful servant. As John’s Gospel (3:16) states so well, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”

In the second reading, the author of Hebrews finds great comfort in the fact that Jesus can sympathize with our own weaknesses because He was fully human, though without sin.

 (Father Schehr is a member of the faculty at the Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati.)