How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?
How many times do I have to tell you? Which of us has never heard this question addressed to us by an exasperated parent or teacher? Sometimes it’s an issue of not having paid attention. Sometimes it’s a question of not believing it applies to us. Sometimes it’s an issue of thinking that what is being said is too good to be true – or too bad to be believed.
Jesus had the same problem with his followers. In the Gospel reading for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark tells us of a time when two of the disciples, James and John, approached Jesus with a confidential request: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” (Mk 10:35-45) Jesus was flabbergasted (totally amazed) by their request. “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (To be baptized means to be plunged into something.)
Now Jesus has been telling his friends for a while already that he is going to Jerusalem and there he will be turned over to the authorities to be tortured and killed. No one can comprehend that this is really going to happen. I would guess they think he’s just a worrywart or exaggerating, but he was absolutely serious. This is why he asked James and John if they could do what he was going to have to do. They brashly assured him they would be able to do whatever he had to do, after all, what made him any more capable of dealing with whatever came than they were!
As it turns out, Jesus assures them, you will indeed drink from the same cup – face death for proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God – and in fact, they later did die as martyrs (witnesses).
When the others caught wind of this conversation, they were incensed. Who do these guys think they are? As the anger and conflict among them grew, Jesus intervened. He told them once again what would be demanded of them as his followers. He spoke of the social reality that existed in the world of non-Jews, the Gentiles (Romans, Greeks, and other surrounding nations). Large numbers of people were slaves. Estimates are that 1/3 of the people were slaves. Most of the rest were not particularly well-off. Only the rulers and upper classes lived well. They considered themselves to be better than the rest and didn’t hesitate to abuse and take advantage of everyone below them. Slaves were seen and treated as less than human, despite the fact that anyone could be enslaved for something as out of their control as the loss of a family’s income that plunged them into debt. If a debt could not be paid, the whole family and their belongings could be sold to pay the debt!
Jesus spoke words at this point that echoed ones we all have heard so often. Mark doesn’t have him saying, “How many times do it have to tell you?” But there’s the same sense of that in what Jesus says. The disciples are told point blank that if they want to be great, they must behave as if they were slaves to all they meet. The reason for this is that he has not come to be a master. He has come to serve as if he were a slave and to give his life as a ransom. This is not the first time he has told them this. It won’t be the last. Eventually, he will show them, but that comes later…
Isaiah spoke many generations earlier of the mystery of the Suffering Servant who would give his life as an offering for sin, see his descendants in a long life, and be the channel through which the Lord’s will can be accomplished. “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” (Is 53:10:11) This is from the fourth song of the suffering servant, the one most fully developed.
Jesus knew of these prophecies. He took them seriously, though many probably thought of them as more symbolic than realistic. Yet they fit into an ancient theme in Jewish history and thought. While the Israelites were traveling in the desert after they left Egypt, they were instructed to set up a tent for the Lord. Only certain people were allowed to enter the tent and only at certain times. If those conditions were not met, it could be fatal for the intruders and their families. Aaron, brother of Moses and priest ordained and authorized to offer sacrifices to the Lord, discovered this the hard way when two of his sons entered the tent and died. He was then required to offer a sacrifice of atonement for their actions or die himself. This is all described in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16.
Aaron’s sacrifice included the use of two male goats. One was sacrificed and offered to the Lord inside the tent. The other was symbolically loaded down with the guilt for the sins of his sons, himself, and all the people. Then that goat was driven out into the desert to die there, taking the sins of the people with it. This goat came to be known as the scapegoat, perhaps because it was sometimes known as the “escaping goat.” Each year after that, on a date set by the Lord for each year, the high priest was to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. After the temple in Jerusalem was built, the very innermost court was called the Holy of Holies. The high priest was the only person allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and offer the sacrifice of atonement there. The rest of the people were also to make sacrifices in their personal lives on that day. This tradition has continued to the present day, without the inclusion of temple sacrifices, on the Day of Atonement each fall.
The Suffering Servant in Isaiah would be the one on whom the guilt of all would rest. His sacrifice would bring a restoration of the good relationship with the Lord for all the people.
This theme arises again in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 4:14-16). The author speaks of our great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God, who has passed through the heavens. This high priest does not need to offer a sacrifice for his sins and those of the people each year. Nor is he one who cannot understand human frailty and our tendency to sin, to miss the goal of acting lovingly. This high priest has shared everything there is to experience about being human, including suffering, loss, and death, but he has never sinned. Because our high priest is Jesus, we can approach the throne of God with absolute confidence, knowing we will be received with grace, mercy, and the help we need going forward.
So the question arises: Have I heard this time? Do I get it? Do I understand that I am not the one who will be in the driver’s seat? I am not to assume others will do my will. I am to be the one who seeks to meet the needs of my sisters and brothers, without demanding that they change or try to do things my way. Am I willing to serve as Jesus served? Am I willing to try to love as Jesus loved? Am I willing to learn to forgive as Jesus did?
The Kingdom of Love awaits. The ones who serve are the ones who will sit at the places of honor (figuratively, of course). Our Lord reaches out in service. As his followers, we are called to join him in doing the same.