• Isa 53:10-11
• Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
• Heb 4:14-16
• Mk 10:35-45
“No pain, no gain.” The well-known saying became popular among exercise enthusiasts in the 1980s. It was a motto for those who knew from experience that peak physical fitness requires perspiration, pain, and commitment. Variations of the sweaty slogan have been traced back to the seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick, and Ben Franklin, in the 1734 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack, wrote: “There are no gains, without pains…”
None of those sloganeers, I’m guessing, had the Passion and death of Jesus Christ in mind. But it fits, even if only as a introductory summary. And today’s Gospel could be given a similar slogan of sorts: “No Cross, no Kingdom.”
The conversation between Jesus and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, is a bit unsettling. It should certainly surprise anyone who thinks the disciples were dutifully pious saints from the very beginning, or simply robotic “yes-men” foils for Jesus. “Teacher,” they boldly—even impatiently and demandingly—declared to Jesus, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
How audacious! My initial thought is, “Who do they think they are? Don’t they know who they are talking to?” Then, after further reflection, I have to admit how often I have approached Jesus in the same way, making demands in the guise of thinly veiled impatience. I need this done now, God! I want an answer immediately—and here’s the answer I expect!
Of course, God wants us to come to him with our problems and fears. But there is an essential difference between approaching God with humble trust and telling him, “Do what I ask of you!” The correct approach recognizes who we are in the light of God’s revealed truth and love. “For me,” wrote St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven.” James and John looked toward heaven, not with the simple humility of gratitude, but with a selfish hunger for personal glory.
They wanted to be rulers and sons of God, seated on the right and left hands of the Lord. Perhaps they had in mind the well-known words of the Psalmist: “The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’” (Ps. 110:1). Jesus provided the necessary reality check: “You do not know what you are asking.” When we make demands of God, it indicates that we have lost sight of who we are and what God desires us to be. This is why the prayer given by Jesus to his disciples states, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”
It is one thing to follow a teacher; it is quite another to follow the Son of God to the Cross. As we heard in last week’s Gospel, the rich young ruler could not follow Jesus because of his attachment to riches. Likewise, all of us struggle with burdens, baggage, and desires that threaten to keep us from the Cross, or tempt us to come down from it. As someone dryly observed, “The only problem with a living sacrifice is it wants to crawl off the altar.”
Jesus asked his disciples if they could drink the cup he would drink. Throughout the Old Testament the cup often symbolized God’s judgment, and of the death—ultimately spiritual in nature—waiting the unrepentant wicked. The only man who didn’t deserve to drink the cup was the sinless God-man. But “through his suffering,” God proclaimed through the prophet Isaiah, “my servant shall justify many and their guilt he shall bear.” Willing to drink the deadly cup, the risen Lord and great high priest now offers the life-saving cup of his blood, the cup of the new and everlasting covenant which anticipates the feast of the coming Kingdom (CCC 2837, 2861).
“Apart from the cross,” St. Rose of Lima said, “there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven” (cf. CCC 618). No Cross, no Kingdom. Know the Cross, know the Kingdom.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the October 18, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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