Father Donald Senior, CP

Oct. 17: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Power as service

Is 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45

The rough national political debate in our country seems unrelenting these days: Republicans versus Democrats; progressives versus moderates; liberals versus conservatives. Even questions about how to control the pandemic get weaponized by fiercely conflicting opinions, often breaking down into political rather than medical categories.

Our Gospel passage from Mark for this Sunday reminds us that struggles about political power were part of Jesus’ world, too. In fact, this exchange between Jesus and his disciples is among the most important and most revealing incidents in all of the New Testament.

It takes place near the end of Jesus’ fateful journey with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Three times during this journey, Jesus instructed his disciples that in Jerusalem opposition to him would coalesce and he would face death by crucifixion, but would also, by God’s power, overcome death. 

Yet each time Jesus warns his disciples about his approaching passion, they go in a different direction. First, Peter tries to silence Jesus, and later, instead of listening to Jesus, the disciples argue about “who is the greatest” among them.

The Gospel passage today is the last of Jesus’ passion predictions, told with special urgency as they are nearing Jerusalem. But once again the disciples miss the point. 

This time James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus to give them positions of power and prestige “one at your right and the other at your left” when he comes into his kingdom, totally oblivious of the destiny Jesus had revealed to them. In Matthew’s Gospel it is their mother who asks this favor of Jesus for her sons. 

The rest of the disciples, sensing they have been outmaneuvered, become “indignant at James and John.”

This awkward moment draws from Jesus one of his most powerful and challenging teachings. First he rebuffs his disciples’ quest for unearned honor: “Can you drink the cup [of suffering] that I drink?” Then, he draws a sharp contrast in the ways that power can be used. “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles, lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt.” 

Jesus speaks bluntly here of Roman political authorities and does so in scathing terms. These rulers “lord it over” their subjects; the word used here is rare and strong, literally meaning they exercise brute and crushing power, literally “down upon” the people. Their “great ones” — another caustic term — “make their authority over them felt.” Such power fed their appetite for prestige and homage. 

This was no abstract debate. Rather, this type of raw and self-aggrandizing power would be the force behind Jesus’ own crucifixion at the hands of Pilate and his soldiers.

“But it shall not be so among you.” Jesus contrasts this type of power, which is evident in so much of our own political world today, with what authentic and life-giving power can be.  Whoever seeks true greatness should be the one who serves. The one who wishes to be first must be the servant of all. 

The final word of Jesus is the key: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many.” The word used throughout this exchange is the Greek term “diakonia,” which means “service.” 

This reveals what should be the true spirit of power, to serve others, not to exploit them or subordinate them to one’s own lust for power. Jesus’ words go further saying that such life-giving service was the fundamental motivation of his own life and death: “not to be served, but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for the many.”

It is important to note that Jesus does not shy away from the use of power, political or otherwise. The key question is how is power to be exercised? Pope Francis makes this point in his forceful work, “Let us Dream.” Our Christian faith does not ask us to flee the public arena but rather to embrace it, using whatever skill and power we hold to serve the urgent needs of all the human family.


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