It’s important to place today’s Gospel passage in its proper context within the Book of Matthew. For the 3rd time, Jesus has just told his followers about his upcoming passion, death and resurrection. For the 3rd time, the disciples miss the point. They still imagine Jesus as a political Messiah who will overthrow the Romans.
James and John understood Jesus’ teaching so poorly that they competed with the other 10 Apostles for special favors. In return for joining Jesus’ group early, their mother is asking Jesus to guarantee James and John a reward when he comes into power. The privilege they want is to be ranked first in the kingdom.
The other 10 Apostles show that their faith is not any deeper than James and John. Their anger shows that they feel that they are entitled to recognition and places of honor as well.
However, Jesus gently reminds them all that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many”. Jesus is telling them that his mission is to serve. Jesus’ death becomes the ultimate expression of the self-donation that marked his entire life. Not only did Jesus give his very life for the whole human race, he gave his death away as well.
In essence, Jesus gave his all: body, heart and soul; life and death.
Therefore, Jesus insists that there is no greatness, no ranking 1st, unless there is giving of self. One becomes great by being the servant of others.
One obtains the 1st place by taking the last place – the place of the slave who asks for nothing in return for what he / she does. The slave’s only duty is to do the will of the master. In order to emphasize this, Jesus, the 2nd person of the Blessed Trinity assumed the position of the lowest slave when he knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples.
Eventually, James did realize that Jesus’ message was not about power and status. He did endure hardships and suffering for the Gospel. He did “indeed drink from the same cup” as Jesus. Since James is the only Apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament, he is considered the 1st Apostle to be martyred.
In October 2013, I had the experience of a lifetime. A fellow deacon and I did the last section of the pilgrimage walk to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. During 6 days, we walked 115 km.
Tradition states that, in the year 813, human remains were found here which were attributed to St. James the Great, the Apostle. St. James the Great is the Apostle that we meet in today’s Gospel – the son of Zebedee and the brother of John the Apostle. The cathedral at Compostela has become a shrine to St. James, who is the patron saint of Spain. The cathedral’s main altar is built over the tomb of the Apostle.
The day following our arrival in the city, we attended the Pilgrim’s Mass in the cathedral. During the homily, the priest made the following statement: “St. James was a slave for the Gospel”. That comment made a deep impression on me.
In a culture preoccupied with freedom, autonomy and individual rights, our natural tendency is to reject fiercely any notion of being a slave to anyone or anything.
But, understood correctly, that’s what the gospel is – an invitation to slavery. Christianity is not about selfish and self-serving interests. Christianity is a commitment to selfless and self-giving service. St. Francis of Assisi said: “Above all the grace and gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self”. The challenge of the Gospel is to transform our homes, schools, work sites and institutions into places where we give our lives away as a gift for the good of others.
The true nature of Christian discipleship is not based on ambition or prestigious positions. Jesus’ disciples are not to imitate the pomp and tyranny of world leaders, but the humility and service that Jesus modelled during his ministry. Jesus, the Son of God, became the servant and the slave of all by dying for all so that humanity could be reconciled to God.
Jesus’ life was all about death to self. Those who follow in Jesus’ footsteps can do no less. We are all familiar with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. According to Bishop Robert Barron, Jesus upgrades the Golden Rule so that it now becomes: “Do unto others as you would have God do unto you”.
What does God do unto me? The answer is staring me in the face: the Cross. Although I am a big sinner, Jesus loves me so perfectly that He gives his life away for me. The bottom line is that the Christian tries to do what Jesus did. Unless we are people who minister to others with Christ-like service, our Christianity is a sham.
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. This key lesson given to the disciples of the 1st century remains the central lesson for us who are the disciples of the 21st century.
As our Eucharist continues, let us ask God to enlighten our hearts and minds so that we may respond with generous and joyful hearts to Jesus’ invitation to be slaves to the Gospel in our own time.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
March 3, 2021