02 March 2011

Heroes or slaves?

8th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

In the ancient Greek epics, heroes usually fall from the grace of the gods because they suffer from some deadly character flaw, typically pride. When the hero falls, we say that he has suffered a great tragedy. What at first appears to be his primary strength, say, confidence or fortitude, turns out to be hubris that leads him to challenge the gods, or simple stubbornness that causes him to ignore wise counsel. The moral lesson from the epics is that there is a very fine line between virtue and vice, between that good habits that make a man a hero and the bad habits that turn him into a tragic figure. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus to be honored in his glory with places at his right and left. They make this request immediately after Jesus describes what will happen to him in Jerusalem—arrest, ridicule, torture, and death. Jesus warns them, “You do not know what you are asking.” In their ignorance, James and John make a request that others might see as virtuous, “Lord, we want to be with you in heaven.” However, they have yet to realize what asking to be honored in heaven—honored above the other disciples—really means. So that James and John may not fall b/c of their fatal flaw, Jesus tells them that they must follow him to Jerusalem and the cross. But even if they manage this, only the Father can assign places of honor in heaven. So that their lives in Christ might not end in tragedy—a defeat caused by a fatal character flaw—Jesus says to the disciples (and us), “. . .whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant.” To be heroes in heaven, we must first be slaves on earth.

When the Zebedee brothers ask Jesus for places of honor in heaven, he tests them with a question, “Can you drink the chalice that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They answer, perhaps a little too quickly, “We can.” But we have to wonder if they really understand what this means. The chalice that Jesus drinks is the chalice of the Suffering Servant, the cup of sacrifice. His baptism is the baptism of repentance of sin. Jesus is asking the brothers if they willing to suffer as he will suffer; if they are willing to be perfect as he himself is perfect. They accept the challenge, and when the other disciples hear about the brothers' request for special treatment, they become indignant. Apparently, the other ten disciples don't really understand exactly what it is that the brothers have agreed to. Jesus seems to calm their indignation by saying, “. . .whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” And just in case he's not being clear enough, Jesus adds, “. . .the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If the disciples believe that being in the Inner Circle is a privilege or a mark of worldly status, this revelation should set them straight. They've not attached themselves to a powerful prince or a military leader. They are tied to a slave, a man who will die so that all others might live. His death will be a ransom, a sum paid to free prisoners. Therefore, the mark of leadership in the Body of Christ is never to be worldly glory or honor or prestige but sacrificial service. 

Never have we been promised a place of honor in heaven for following Christ. We have not been promised prosperity, health, recognition, or even holiness. If we drink his chalice and take his baptism, we have been promised nothing more than what he himself has already received: persecution, ridicule, torture, death, and resurrection and life in the world to come. Our Greek heroes have taught us that there is a fine line btw virtue and vice. Jesus teaches us that there is a fine line btw seeking the glory of this world and the glory of heaven. Will you follow Christ? Then give your life as a ransom for all those enslaved to sin.

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  1. lois in Indy8:01 PM

    Father, your recent homilies have really been excellent. They have spoken to me, anyway. Thanks. lois

  2. Thanks, Lois. . .it's helps that I have a "live audience."