29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

There’s a word in the Jewish language, Chutzpah.  The dictionary defines chutzpah as “supreme self-confidence”; gall or nerve.  They give an example, “He had the chutzpah to demand special treatment”.


I think we can agree that John and James had chutzpah.  “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  Of course we know that what they wanted was to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand when He came into His glory.


I used to travel to China.  In their tradition, where you sit at the table has great importance.  At a business dinner, which is almost always at a round table, the most important guest sits at the host’s side.  As you go around the table the farther you are from the host, the less status you have.  At my first dinner meeting in Taiwan, I sat at the furthest spot at the table, after the secretaries.  But as I moved up in my company, my spot at the table gradually improved until I eventually got to sit next to the host.  For what it’s worth, that first business dinner was probably the most enjoyable.  Sitting In the first spot meant talking about business and you had to be very careful about what you said.  The secretaries and I had a good time.  They taught me how to use chopsticks and we had a good laugh while I tried to figure out how to eat rice with those two silly sticks.  You’d think that after years of exposure to the west they would realize that the fork is really the way to go.


A lot of us spend our working lives trying to improve our position.  A bigger office, a grander title, invitations to the most important meetings; all these things massage our egos and make us feel more important.  Frankly, I got pretty far up the ladder and every new title just meant more work and more pressure.  I was lucky enough to step back in the last few years of my career.  I let younger people take my place and really enjoyed my role as an in-house consultant, not having to go to the big-deal meetings.  I made a little less money but also had a lot less pressure.  I think that what Jesus is telling us today is to be careful what we wish for


He tells John and James they don’t know what they’re asking for.  “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  They answered that they could and Jesus responded that it’s not up to Him who sits where.


Of course we know how Jesus earthly journey ends.  The men on Jesus’ right and left were thieves who were crucified.  I don’t think that’s what John and James had in mind.


If you ever attend a mass at the cathedral you’ll notice that the Archbishop sits in a big, marble chair.  It’s called the “cathedra”, which means chair.  But, it’s not just any old chair, it’s the place of primacy in the entire Archdiocese.  On either side of the cathedra are two smaller chairs.  Those are for the deacons.  Wow!  When a deacon assists the Archbishop, he gets to sit right next to him.  Not the auxiliary bishops, not the priests, but the deacons get to sit on his right and left.  But why is that?  The deacons are there to serve the Archbishop.  In procession the deacons walk ahead of him to clear the way.  When he sits, deacons sit on either side of him so they’re ready to serve him.  The chairs on his right and left aren’t positions of power or prestige, they’re positions of service.


What John and James are missing today is that prestige is a fleeting thing and that with increased prestige comes increased responsibility.  “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 
They say that they can, and they’re right.  You and I can say the same.  But who sits where in heaven has already been decided.  We know now that God the Father sits on Jesus’ left.  [He (Jesus) is seated at the right hand of the Father.]  The early Church Fathers (and common sense) tell us that His mother is seated on His right.  So John and James are going to have to sit somewhere else.


I think we can take two lessons from today’s Gospel.  The first is this idea of chutzpah.  When John and James say to Jesus, the Son of God, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” doesn’t that sound really brash?  Don’t you think, “Who do these guys think they are?”  That’s what the other Apostles thought.  But, don’t you and I often speak to Him the same way?  “Give me this.  Do that.  Heal this.  Make that happen.”  When we pray aren’t we asking Jesus to do whatever we ask.  But then when we pray the “Our Father” we say “thy will be done.”  Which is it?  His will or ours?  We have to make up our minds.    Remember, it was Jesus who taught us the Lord’s Prayer. “Pray like this” He said.


Second, we have to be careful of what we pray for.  Even at a young age, who doesn’t want to be the boss?  Who doesn’t want to be in charge?  We’re always looking for ways to move up; to make more money and earn more respect.  But is that really important?  Remember what He told us last week:  “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Temporary, earthly things aren’t going to earn us eternal happiness.  In fact, they may hold us back.


Besides, we often find that when we get the things we want (Notice I said the things we want, not the things we need.  There is a difference.) when we get those things they often turn out not to be as great as we thought they’d be.  A fancy title and a big paycheck may turn out to be more of a burden than a blessing.  Personally I’ve never been happier than I’ve been since I gave all that up.


Jesus gives us the answer in the closing words of the Gospel:  “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”