Commentary on the Readings
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
Which crown, which diadem God chooses
The first schism in the church took place under the eyes of Jesus, two disciples against ten and ten against two (Mk 10:35-41). The reason of the dispute is not a theological discussion or denial of dogmas, but the lust for power, competition for the top spots. It was the beginning of a painful history of ecclesial divisions and conflicts, always driven by petty rivalries. When someone wants to dominate the others, the group falls apart. But not even the democratic system eliminates squabbles, because it does not cure it at the root. It’s just a balancing act, an attempt to reconcile opposing selfishness.
Jesus appointed the Twelve so that they would be the sign in the world of a new society in which every claim to dominion is abolished and cultivates a single ambition: the service of the poorest. A difficult task! The mentality of this world has infiltrated, since the very beginning, even in the church and over the centuries the criteria of this world have resurfaced: domination, possession, the enslavement of others. The tiara, the famous hat of the pope, was the symbol of authority and the universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. Its origin is uncertain, but in the thirteenth century it consisted of a single crown, in the following century two, and a few decades later, three overlapping crowns, symbols of the three kingdoms over which the pope extended his power: the sky, the ground and underground. Elected Pope, Paul VI made a historic gesture: he put it on his head and immediately took it off, this time for good. The tiara was a too ambiguous, too compromised symbol, which is incompatible with the one glorious diadem that had adorned the head of the Master, the crown of thorns.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Great is the one who serves.”
People want to win, not lose; they seek to dominate, not to serve. God thinks the opposite way and, to educate his people to accept the logic of the gift of life, since the Old Testament he indicated a pattern: his faithful Servant.
We’ve encountered this mysterious character many times; now He is being reintroduced to prepare us to understand and respond to the challenging message of the gospel.
In the first part of the passage (vv. 2-3) the humble appearance of this Servant is described: he crops up like a little desert shrub, grows in a land without water, has none of the features that attract the attention of people: beauty, strength, wealth; on the contrary, he is weak, despised, defeated.
The second part of the passage (vv. 10-11) shows the opposite judgment of God. That which people consider a failure, for the Lord it is a success.
It is through sacrifice, suffering, self-giving that God carries out his plans of salvation. Just—because as a victim of hate, injustice and violence, the Servant delivers his persecutors from their iniquities. It is the perfect image of Jesus that saved the people, not dominating them, but humbling himself, kneeling in front of them to serve, giving his life.
The Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus, at the beginning of his public life, has been subjected to the temptations of the devil. Then the evangelists did not take up the subject again. Only Luke suggests that these temptations continued after. He refers, in fact, that “the devil left him to return another time” (Lk 4:13).
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that is being proposed today addresses this issue clearly. Christ is able to understand our weaknesses because he himself was tempted in all aspects as we are. The only difference is that while we are often unfaithful to God, he never yielded to sin.
This statement is a source of great consolation. It shows a Jesus who is very close to us, sensitive to our problems. He did not pretend to be a man, he really was; he passed through all the difficulties that we must face and knows how difficult and costly it is to remain faithful to God, especially when one is tried by suffering.
A little later in the same letter, the author, returning to the subject, adds, “although he was Son, he learned through suffering how hard it is for man to obey and accept the will of God” (Heb 5:8).
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He precedes his disciples at a fast pace and they fearfully follow him because, twice, he has already explained to them what is the goal of the journey. In the verses immediately prior to today’s passage, the teacher, for the third time, announces his fate: he will be insulted, condemned to death, scourged and killed (vv. 32-34). In response we would expect, from the disciples, an attempt to dissuade him from traveling, the suggestion to stop for a moment, wait for better times. None of this.
Yet it seems impossible that, after clearly hearing the words on the fate of Jesus, they continue to deceive themselves that he goes up to Jerusalem to begin the Messianic time, defined as the kingdom of this world. They know too well that their teacher has to go through the humiliation and death, but they have also begun to think about what will happen next.
At this point their senselessness reaches its climax. Their dreams of glory do not stop even in the face of death. They can overcome this perspective, given for granted by now. This reveals just how deeply rooted in them the desire for power and the desire to take the places of honor.
James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, presented themselves to Jesus and, in front of everyone, without a hint of discretion, they say, “We want you to grant us what we are going to ask you!” (v. 35). They do not ask “please” but they demand, as one who claims a right. They recall that after the first announcement of the Passion (Mk 8:31), Jesus spoke of the day when “he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk 8:38). They dismissed the rest of the discourse of the Master, but this term glory, used by Jesus only once, they have not forgotten and have connected it to the teaching of the rabbis who, referring to the Messiah, ensure that he will “sit on the throne of glory” to judge and that at his side the just ones will sit.
James and John explicitly claim to be high up to the sky, to be able to command also there. This is the most blatant and most blind of the arrogances, showing where the will to command, inherent in the human heart, can lead.
When Mark wrote this passage, things have radically changed: James has already given his life to Christ; he died a martyr in Jerusalem (Acts 12:2) and John is generously dedicating himself to the cause of the gospel. In the end, therefore, they have proven to have understood the teaching of the Master and the early community nurtures an immense veneration for them. That’s why Luke avoids to report the episode. Matthew modifies it, ensuring that it was their mother to come forward, and puts on the lips of the woman more polite words (Mt 20:20-24). The story, however, took place as Mark has told.
The two brothers were not just simple followers, but two prominent figures of the early church. However, in front of the central proposal of the Christian message, for a long time they also showed total misunderstanding. They conformed, although with some difficulties. After raising the objections to some of the moral demands of the Master, one on the indissoluble marriage for example; they have left everything to follow him, but when he spoke of surrender to the domain, the power… they are not really able to understand it.
The goal of Mark is to let the Christians of his community reflect. Even after a violent persecution like that of Nero the competition for the first places re-emerged among them.
Christians who are exemplary, committed, available to serve the brethren, and actively participate in all the community initiatives, are often tempted to impose themselves on others and their naive desire to excel always ends up creating misunderstandings. It is not surprising that these weaknesses show up. Even the most imminent among the apostles have been victims.
When among his disciples the claims of honors, privileges, first places re-emerged, Jesus did not show tenderness (Mk 8:33; 9:33-36) for every ambition, even what may seem innocent, calls into question the central point of his proposal. With James and John he was hard and severe, “You don’t know what you are asking.” Then, to help them understand, he introduced two images: the cup and that of baptism.
The first refers to a well-known practice in Israel. The father or the person who occupied the first place at table, as a gesture of respect and affection, used to offer to the beloved person to drink from the same cup. This image is often repeated in the Bible, sometimes in a positive way: “O Lord, my inheritance and my cup” (Ps 16:5), most of the time negatively: “O Jerusalem, you who drank at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury” (Is 51:17).
The chalice indicates the destiny, good or bad, of a person. Jesus knows that a chalice of pain awaits him, a chalice from which he would like to be spared (Mk 14:36), but that has to be drunk, to enter into glory.
The image of baptism has the same meaning: it indicates the passage through the waters of death. The sufferings and anxieties to which the just is subjected are often compared by the Bible to an immersion in deep waters or the roar of rushing waters (Ps 69:2-3; 42:8).
Are James and John ready to drink the cup of the Master? Are they willing to follow the path of the gift of life? Do they feel like plunging with him in the waters of suffering and death? They understood and, in order to reach their goal, they decided also to suffer.
Jesus respects their slowness in understanding the will of God. He announces that, one day, they too will share his destiny of suffering and death, will drink the same cup and will give their lives. Then he responds to their request: the place in glory is a free gift of the Father. It is not something that can be achieved by presenting merits. They make the mistake of imagining the kingdom of God on the model of the kingdoms of this world where there is the climb to the top. They cannot understand that, before God, no claims based on good works can be put forward: he gives everything as a gift (v. 40).
The indignant reaction of the other ten shows how they too are far from having assimilated the thought of the Master and behold the schism within the group.
What had happened in Israel after the death of King Solomon is reproduced in the community of the disciples. Rehoboam’s frenzy for power had caused the division of the kingdom: two tribes had sided against ten and ten against two (1 Kgs 12). The history of their people would have taught something to his disciples.
Jesus takes the floor again to clarify the issue of hierarchies and the exercise of power within his community (vv. 41-45). He does so after calling his disciples to himself, an expression that in Mark serves to focus the attention on a message particularly significant.
“As you know—says Jesus—the so-called rulers of the nations act as tyrants, and the great ones oppress them” (v. 42).
From the expression “the so-called rulers” the subtle irony of the Master against the holders of power shines through. This irony becomes more explicit in the parallel passage in Luke where Jesus speaks of those who “rule over them as lords” and he added… “claim to the title ‘Gracious Lord’” (Lk 22:25).
The analysis of the way these leaders fulfill their task serves Jesus to define the way it should be done within the ministry of the leadership within the Christian community. The disciples have several models of authority under their eyes. They know the political and religious leaders, rabbis, the scribes, the priests of the temple. All exercise power in the same way: they give orders, claim privileges, demand to be revered as required by the ceremonial. People should kneel before them, kiss the hand, dose carefully the titles choosing those convenient and appropriate to the positions of prestige of each.
Is it to these authorities that the disciples must inspire?
There must be no doubt or confusion on this point. To his disciples, Jesus gives a clear and irrefutable order: “But it shall not be so among you!” (v. 43). None of these types of authority may be used as example.
The model to imitate—he explains—is the slave, the one who occupies the lowest level in the society, the one to whom everyone is right to give orders. Like the servant he is always attentive, day and night, to the wishes of his master, so who fulfills the role of leadership in the Christian community must consider all as his superiors, must feel himself the least and the servant of all.
The disciples of the rabbis followed the teacher, learned his teachings, obeyed his every order, went on foot while he was riding a donkey, kept a respectful distance and lent themselves to take all services, even the most humble, like cleaning his home and washing his feet. They were willing to stoop in order to become one day themselves rabbis and be entitled to the same privileges and the same high social status of the teacher.
Jesus rejects this logic. He does not want someone to serve him. He places himself among his own as one who serves. He reminds everyone that “the son of man has not come to be served but to serve” (v. 45). He does not require that they wash his feet. He himself stoops to wash the disciples’ feet.
To complete the picture we can remember other attitudes severely condemned by Jesus, attitudes before which the Christian must show an instinctive revulsion: putting on a show, getting oneself noticed (Mt 23:5), dressing in uniforms, with special clothes, to stand out from the others (Mk 12:38); claiming the seats of honor in the festivities, the chief seats in the synagogues; requiring to be called “rabbi,” “teacher,” “father” (Mt 23:6-10).
The stern message of the Master is aimed not only at those who are invested with authority in the church. Anyone who wants to follow the Master has to be considered the “servant” of all.