Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Save Me, O Lord, In Your Kindness.

Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent
Reading I
Jeremiah 18:18-20
The people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem said,
“Come, let us contrive a plot against Jeremiah.
It will not mean the loss of instruction from the priests,
nor of counsel from the wise, nor of messages from the prophets.
And so, let us destroy him by his own tongue;
let us carefully note his every word.”

Heed me, O LORD,
and listen to what my adversaries say.
Must good be repaid with evil
that they should dig a pit to take my life?
Remember that I stood before you
to speak in their behalf,
to turn away your wrath from them.
Today’s readings continue in a slightly different from that of yesterday: the need for service without reward. Doing the right things in the right way because they are right and not for glory, honour, praise or reward.

There are plots against the prophet Jeremiah. People find his teaching uncomfortable; they want to get rid of him. He is seen as a trouble-maker.

In the eyes of his critics, getting rid of him really won’t make much difference. The work of the priests, sages and other prophets will go on without him just as before. Their words are so bland and harmless and lull people into complacency as they have always done.

But Jeremiah is puzzled. “Should evil be returned for good?” he asks, referring to the attacks being made on him when he passes on God’s word to the people. It is a question that is often asked. “How could God allow this to happen to such a good person?” He had pleaded with God on the people’s behalf and this is the reward he gets.

We will see in today’s Gospel that they do not treat Jesus any differently. We should not be surprised either if, as Christians, we meet with ridicule and rejection. The world is not ready to hear words truth and justice; it does not like the real prophet who has the tendency to draw people’s attentions to the things they don’t want to hear. Jesus had that annoying habit too.

But let us also consider whether people’s indifference to our message and way of life is because of its blandness, salt without taste. Then we deserve to be ignored.
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Psalm 31
Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.
You will free me from the snare they set for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me, O LORD, O faithful God.
Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.
I hear the whispers of the crowd,
that frighten me from every side,
as they consult together against me,
plotting to take my life.
Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.
But my trust is in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
In your hands is my destiny; rescue me
from the clutches of my enemies and my persecutors.
Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.
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Matthew 20:17-28
As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem,
he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves,
and said to them on the way,
“Behold, 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,
and hand him over to the Gentiles
to be mocked and scourged and crucified,
and he will be raised on the third day.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee
approached Jesus with her sons
and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.
He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She answered him,
“Command that these two sons of mine sit,
one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”
Jesus said in reply,
“You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”
They said to him, “We can.”
He replied,
“My chalice you will indeed drink,
but to sit at my right and at my left,
this is not mine to give but is for those
for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard this,
they became indignant at the two brothers.
But Jesus summoned them and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In the Gospel Jesus takes his disciples aside to let them know what is going to happen to him. This is, in fact, the third time he has told them this. It is the third and most detailed of the Passion predictions. For the first time, mention is made of being handed over to the Gentiles. The text follows Mark very closely except that, where Mark says that Jesus will be killed, Matthew explicitly says ‘crucified’.

Their reactions are not recorded here but we know that on previous occasions they were both shocked and saddened. They were also perplexed. How could people do this to the Messiah for whom they had waited so long? How could their own leaders do this to the Messiah? Even worse, how could they hand him over into the hands of the hated Romans? They did not yet understand how Jesus would enter his glory through rejection, suffering and death.

In fact, they have still a lot to learn as what follows clearly indicates. The mother of James and John approaches Jesus with a request, a typical mother’s request. In Mark’s gospel, it is the boys themselves who ask the favour. Why Matthew makes the mother ask is not clear. There could be an allusion here to Bathsheba, wife of King David, seeking the kingdom for her son Solomon. Another possibility is that Matthew is more deferential to the disciples than Mark, who regularly shows up their failure to understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

”What is it you want?” Jesus asks her. If Jesus asked me that question right now, what answer would I give? She asked that her two sons be on Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom. ‘Kingdom’ here is to be taken in the sense in which Jesus normally uses it, that is, the Kingdom of God on earth rather than referring to Jesus in glory. The two disciples envision Jesus as Messiah, King of his people and with a court like every other early king.

The mother uses her contact with a person in authority to get some short-cut privileges for her sons. Understandable indeed but not the way that God or Jesus works.

“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” This question is clearly directed at the two disciples. “We can,” they say with confidence. They are ready to do anything to get the top spots with the Messiah. They have forgotten the words that, unless we carry our cross after Jesus, we cannot be his followers. And Yes, they would “drink the cup” of pain and sorrow and suffering but that is not what they are thinking about now.

In any case, the places at the right and left of Jesus are not privileges given to the first people who just ask. Jesus works by quite other standards. Those places will be given to those who deserve them and to no one else. And those who deserve them are those who follow Jesus most closely.

The other ten disciples are not much better. They are angry and indignant about the backdoor tactics of James and John. Obviously their thinking is no different. So Jesus teaches them about real greatness.

In the secular world, leaders exert power, domination and manipulation. They control people for their own ends. In Jesus’ world, it is altogether different. To be great is to put one’s talents totally at the service of others, to empower not to have power. Jesus himself is the perfect example. It is a lesson we do not find easy to learn or to follow.

And Jesus says in conclusion: “Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ‘Ransom’ here is to be taken in the sense of ‘liberation, making free’. ‘Many’, as a Semitic expression, means ‘all’. Jesus put his whole life at our disposal so that every single person should experience liberation and fullness of life. We are called to take part in the same great enterprise.


Sarah in the tent said...

'But to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father'

This reminds me of the image of the Crucifixion, with Mary and St John to Christ's right and left.

Our Lord did not 'command' them to take up these positions, they did so of their own free will, out of faithful love (St Peter's love was not so faithful!)

Mary, from her immaculate conception, had obviously been prepared by the Father for this position of honour. As for John, perhaps his writings show that he too had been specially nurtured.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Salome, wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John, was kin to Mary, mother of Jesus. She was merely doing what any proud mother would do in her place: "I trust you will have places for my sons when this project of yours comes to fruition."

Please take note that Jesus did not deny her request. His response was: "Those positions are not mine to give, but my Father's." And, at the end of the day, the favor she asked for was granted.

Remember too, that among those at the foot of the Cross stood not only John, but his mother Salome, and Mary of Magdala. Peter was absent: evidently his sorrow and shame at having denied Jesus was too great at that time; in a sense, it was his love for Jesus that kept him away.

The message to us is: God knows how frail is our faith; he only asks that we strive toward perfection and that we repent when we don't reach the goals we've set for ourselves -- our standard for "perfection" might be higher than God's -- and it might even be on a path different from the one He has chosen for us.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, I had to remove your post from earlier this morning, because the link to the British Museum didn't work. So I copied the rest of the post; and here it is:

I find a certain similarity with Luke 11:28 "More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it."

In both cases, superficially, Our Lord seems to be 'bursting the bubble' of a well meaning woman who has got carried away. But after a more careful reading, you realize that the woman and her sons (or His own mother) are not being disparaged at all. The blessing they have of personal closeness to Him is just being extended and made available to everyone.

There is an exhibition of Crucifixion images in Lausanne this Lent, so I have been wondering about the interpretations the images convey. Mary and St John could stand for the Church (because of Christ's words to them from the cross), and perhaps for all humanity ('Male and female He created them'). However, the exhibition includes an image from an ivory panel dated 420 AD. To the left of Jesus is Longinus piercing His side (for the gentiles, perhaps) and to His right are Jewish believers: first John, then Mary, then - shockingly - Judas hanging from a tree. Where we stand in relation to Jesus is a crucial(!) challenge. Who would want to be Judas - or even Longinus?