Our society is rife with political patronage and cronyism, and the closer one gets to the leader the greater their chances of enjoying the privileges of power. This trend promotes sycophancy and favouritism. In the Old Testament (I Kings 1:11-40), Queen Bathsheba connived with the prophet Nathan to pressure King David into appointing her son Solomon as King, ahead of Adonijah the older son and heir-apparent. And in the New Testament (Mt. 14:1-12), Herodias capitalized on her illicit relationship with King Herod to procure the beheading of John the Baptist.
Political lobbying is a global brand today, and it often means that people with inordinate socioeconomic power are corrupting the legislative process for their selfish interests. For example, we see big industry spending millions in political donations to influence government policy, and when elected officials with a responsibility to serve the common good can profit from using the legislative power to favour some vested interests, a clear conflict of interest emerges. According to reports, the value of lobby offers each individual Member of the European Parliament receives can be up to €10,000 per week. And in 2016, the total lobbying spending in the United States was valued at USD 3.15 billion.Even in the Church, in many countries, closeness to a bishop could procure a plum parish for a priest.
In our Gospel passage, James and John buy into this lobby mindset by seeking to use their familiarity with Jesus to gain top seats in heaven. They want to take advantage of being part of Jesus’ inner circle of friends to gain some personal advantage.However, Jesus is clear they do not know what they were saying. God acts, and judges differently than we do. In him there is no favouritism, and no amount of human pressure can alter his eternal will.God just cannot be lobbied! Therefore, positions in heaven are for, “those to whom they have been allotted”. The kingdom of heaven is a matter of “who you know”, and it is not subject to preferentialism. The divine side of the deal is already settled, God has determined the just rewards and punishments, and all that is left for us humans is to check in, but not without the key-card of faith made manifest in good works.
“Are you able to drink the chalice?” This is a reference to Jesus’ impending passion. The chalice is a symbol of God’s fury, the dose of punishment reserved for the unrighteous. We see an example in the prophecy of Jeremiah where the Lord said: “Take this cup of the wine of wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it; they will drink and reel and lose their wits, because of the sword I am sending among them” (Jer. 25:15-16). We can see other instances in Isaiah (51:17) and the Apocalypse (14:10). Though innocent he was, Jesus will drink this chalice because he is the suffering servant of the Lord, by whose stripes we are healed. James and John will surely get their own share of suffering, but that alone is not enough to win them prime positions in heaven. We know that James was martyred by Herod, and John, after being put into a cauldron of boiling oil and miraculously escaping, was exiled to the Island of Patmos.
Dear friends, suffering alone cannot guarantee our passage into heaven. The kingdom of heaven is not a patrimony, which the holder divides amongst his relatives and cronies. It is a covenant of love between God and his people, and everyone is welcome – no special requirements, no special connections, and no special relationships. In John’s Gospel (14:2), the Lord is emphatic that there are many mansions there and everyone has a position, if only they are willing to take it up. However, it is all by God’s grace; only he alone bestows places of honour.What pleases God is our faith and total submission to his will, and not our attempts to lobby or pressure him. Jesus himself submitted to the power of death, and by that he redeemed us. As Isaiah says in the First Reading: “By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself” (Isaiah 50:11). As terrifying as the prospects of death were for him, Jesus did not take advantage of his divine sonship to stop his executioners, nor did he summon his angels to rescue him. Instead he submitted to the chalice of suffering.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, this request by James and John draws feelings of indignation from the rest of the group, and Jesus seizes the moment to give them a lesson on leadership and ambition. The model of the world is that of leaders at the top and the rest at the bottom, but that is not to be the case among the followers of Christ. Christian leaders must be servants of all. Ecclesiastical leadership must follow the model of Christ who by love made himself the least and the servant of all (Cf. CCC1551). Those in authority must not “lord” it over the people, like the pagans do. The high and mighty must never oppress or take advantage of the lowly.
The followers of Christ are not to copy the grandeur and tyranny of political leaders, but the humility and service that he modeled while on earth. It is not how much we get out of our position that matters but how much we put into it. Humility is the foundation for greatness in God’s eyes. We must not bring a business ladder mentality into the Church.
The kingdom of God is not a political convention; it is a wedding party – that of the Son of God. We gain our salvation not from Jesus’ show of power but from his frailty in submitting to death on the Cross. God honoured him with the name above every other name not because he dominated everyone around him, but because he came not “to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45). We cannot muscle our way into heaven and we cannot lobby our way either – only a faithful submission to the will of God, no matter what that brings, will get us there.
May the Mother of Good Counsel help us to follow Christ on the path of humility and faithful submission. Amen!