There’s an old joke about a confused American tourist, driving around a remote area of the West of Ireland, hopelessly lost among the by-ways and boreens. This was before Google Maps and Sat Navs and he had no idea where he was or how he would get to the village he was supposed to be staying in for the night. Totally confused and frustrated, he saw an old man walking along the road with his sheepdog and pulled up beside him and rolled down the window and asked him how he would get to his destination. The old man paused for a few moments, rubbed his chin and began to shake his head. Eventually he answered: “Well the first thing I’d do is that I wouldn’t start from here”!

As I looked at today’s Gospel, and at the first sentence, this silly story came to mind. Today’s Gospel begins with James and John, coming forward and asking Jesus for seats one on his right and one on his left, in his glory. A pretty bold and pushy demand… As I considered what to say about the Gospel, the response of the farmer to the tourist in that old joke came to mind: “Well the first thing I’d do is that I wouldn’t start from here…”

You see, if the Lectionary had started the reading just a few lines earlier in the Gospel, we would understand the context much better. Because in the verses just before today’s reading, Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for what was to come when they reached Jerusalem. It was disturbingly direct: ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

And how did James and John react? They totally ignored all the appalling bits about their teacher and leader being arrested, condemned, mocked, spat upon, flogged and killed, and immediately jumped to the happy ending, asking for the best seats in the house after the resurrection. If I were ever in the awful situation of telling my closest friends that I knew I was about to be murdered, I’d hope that their first words wouldn’t be a demand to be the main beneficiaries of my will… The request of the sons of Zebedee was completely bone-headed and obtuse and it’s easy to caricature them and ridicule them, as I’m doing right now. But maybe we aren’t actually all that different. Jesus had just announced something so awful that perhaps they simply couldn’t take it in. It’s easy to imagine the stunned and silent horror of the disciples when they heard Jesus foretelling what was to come, and so in their panic they simply broke the awkward silence with the first thing that came in to their heads. They changed the subject. An Irish person nowadays might react by asking if anyone would like a nice cup of tea instead! But it’s the same dynamic: it’s easier to change the subject than to deal with shocking and difficult news.

This is true in the general sense, of the bits and pieces of daily life, but it’s also true in the particular sense of being a follower of Jesus. We might laugh at James and John for ignoring all the coming suffering and jumping straight to the resurrection, with their outlandish request to be allowed reign alongside the Christ in glory. But we Christians aren’t always keen to focus on the challenges and the suffering that are part of being disciples either. We don’t always want to truly walk the way of the Cross. We are often just as guilty as James and John of treating Jesus like a kind of fairy-godfather, whose principal function is to give us what we want. But the Son of God is not a genie in a bottle who appears when summoned to grant us three wishes. To us, as to James and John, Jesus asks the challenging question: ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’

Following Jesus is challenging. The rich young man we heard about last week discovered that when Jesus told him to sell all he had. He couldn’t do it, and he went away sad. Today, James and John are told that fidelity to Jesus can lead to suffering and death, and they simply changed the subject. Maybe we need to ask ourselves where we stand. Are we up for the challenge?

In answering the silly and proud demand of James and John, Jesus continued with a lesson on how his followers should live: ‘Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’ Last Sunday in Rome, and today in all the dioceses of the world, the Pope and bishops launched a two-year process leading up to a Synod – a meeting of the world’s bishops – to discern how better to be a Church that ‘walks together’, a Church characterised by Community, Participation and Mission. They could surely find no better starting point that today’s Gospel: ‘Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’ Let us pray in a special way today for this process that is now starting all over the world. Pope Francis says he doesn’t want it to be just ‘a Church convention, a study group or a political gathering, a parliament, but rather a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Spirit’. Let us pray that it may be so – keeping in mind, as Pope Francis said during the week, ‘the joyful conviction that, even as we seek the Lord, he always comes with his love to meet us first’.







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