Because today’s gospel is one of those stories about the fumbling, bumbling disciples who all too often miss the mark of true discipleship, it provides hope for all the rest of us who are likewise stumbling along. First, James and John manipulatively try to trick Jesus into granting their wish before they have even told him what it is! Then they lobby Jesus to guarantee not only their eternal salvation but likewise their eternal prominence, seated beside him forever in glory. In emphasizing the irony of this outlandish request, Mark places this exchange directly after Jesus has revealed his upcoming condemnation, brutal suffering and humiliating death. Were they not listening, we shake our heads and wonder, or are they just that clueless? Either way, we see that these disciples are so caught up in themselves and their personal quest for power and recognition that their own ego needs eclipse all else.
When news of this conversation reaches the other ten disciples, they are immediately indignant. We’d like to think that their anger is borne out of loyalty to Jesus and insightful recognition that James and John’s ambition is totally misguided, but more likely they are enviously bickering about who among them is entitled to such exalted positions of honor. Not a pretty picture, all the way around.
On first read, we may assess these 12 disciples as sorely lacking in what constitutes real discipleship. In fact, our reflex is to write them off them as arrogant and self-absorbed; we may even chuckle or tsk-tsk at their oblivion. But then we pause a moment and realize that James and John, the other 10 disciples, and, in fact, we ourselves all carry the same human nature that is so easily side-tracked by “shiny objects” — over and over and over again.
But the invitation of Jesus is to see past the disciples’ obvious limitations. He does not judge or dismiss his friends because of their behavior. Instead he looks into their hearts with compassion and sees the truth of their motivation, unmasked. He meets them where they are – well-intentioned but feeble; insecure, anxious and worried; so unsure of themselves that they are looking to be “one up over the next guy” in order to feel better about themselves, their accomplishments and their uncertain futures. And Jesus loves them, right where they are.
Who among us does not know the same fundamental drives to question if we are doing as well as, even better than, those around us; to “one up” as an attempt to relieve anxiety; to feel we personally have merit when our ideas prevail? Particularly in the aging process, we may struggle to glimpse the future, to at least know all will be well, and yes, how it will be well would likewise be nice to know! As with the disciples, Jesus accepts and loves all of those worries and struggles within us. And as if that were not enough, he also shows us the way out of our perennial traps.
How so? Mark’s gospel brings us full circle – from imprisonment to freedom, from anxious self-centeredness to open selflessness — as he portrays the sacred moment when the disciples experience the unconditional and reconciling love of Jesus. Rather than judging behavior or motivation, Jesus does not cling to past hurts, struggles or insecurities. Rather, he openly shares with his dear friends the fruits of his own contemplation! In fact, he is so completely selfless that he teaches the disciples by drawing from the core of his most intimate God relationship. Just as a vessel that is full cannot be filled any further, he models the basic truth that we must empty ourselves of our very selves in order to be filled with God. Ironically, to let go is to have all you need…and then, even more than you can ask or imagine. Death to self–interest leads to abundant new life. Only in opening our limited selves do we move into the limitless grace of inspired community.
Perhaps it was with these truths in mind that Karl Rahner, SJ authored the prayer God of My Life, which reads, in part:
Only in love can I find you, my God.
In love the gates of my soul spring open,
allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom
and forget my own petty self.
In love my whole being streams forth
out of the rigid confines of narrowness and anxious self-assertion,
which makes me a prisoner of my own poverty and emptiness.
…when I love you,
when I manage to break out of the narrow circle of self
and leave behind the restless agony of unanswered questions, …
then can I bury myself entirely in you, O mysterious God,
and with myself all my questions.