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No Cross, no Kingdom. Know the Cross, know the Kingdom.

In the Gospel Reading for Sunday, October 17, 2021, Jesus asks his earthly-minded disciples if they were able to drink the cup of suffering that he willingly accepted.

(Image: Ricky Turner @ricky_turner |

• 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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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Too often we define suffering as limited to anything we’re going through that is unpleasant, such as illness, loss, struggles at work or home, etc. Sure, sufferings like those Job went through are trials, tests of our faith by the accuser. But the sufferings Christ speaks of, and those described throughout the New Testament, are sufferings for the sake of Christ, for being a Christian…persecutions by others, including governments, for standing up for Christ, for proclaiming His kingdom, for declaring in word and deed that there is only one King, one Lord, one Ruler of the kings of the earth, Jesus Christ. Can we say that we are suffering for this reason?

    1 Peter 4:12-19 (RSVCE)
    Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And
    “If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
    Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

  2. At last. The Hard Truth. “How audacious! My initial thought is, “Who do they think they are?”(Olson). Probably self indulgent peasants like myself [although I’m hopefully making progress]. The beauty of Christ’s Cross is its simple honesty. God’s goodness is uniquely understood, even if penetrating surface layers in the willful effort to suffer for those who would rather have you dead than tolerate you alive.

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