ST AUGUSTINE distinguishes between true pastors, “whose mother is the Church”, and false shepherds, “whose mother is pride”. It is, of course, pride that makes James and John ask Jesus to sit, “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”. Jesus does not directly rebuke them, but asks whether they are “able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?”
He is inviting them to recognise that true glory lies not in exceeding their fellow-disciples in rank and status, but in participating together in his sacrificial life. In Augustine’s words, “The homeland is life in Christ; the way is dying with Christ. Why do you seek the homeland if you are not seeking the way to it?”
James and John respond to Jesus’s question with great confidence: “We are able.” As Mary Healy observes, “they do not yet realise what they are asserting. Only on Golgotha will the deep irony of their request become clear: those at the right and left hand of the Messiah-King are the two thieves crucified with him” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark).
By then, these disciples will have fled from Jesus’s side. Only through that searing experience will they learn to rely not on their own strength and courage, but on the power of their crucified and risen Lord. Filled with his Spirit, they, too, will drink his cup of suffering and be baptised with his baptism. (James’s martyrdom at the hands of King Herod is recorded in Acts 12.2.)
The other disciples “begin to be angry” when they hear what James and John have asked. As we saw last Sunday, they have left material things behind (Mark 10.28), but they have yet to lay down their vanity. Their fantasies of greatness also need to be abandoned; for “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
By the standards of worldly greatness, the servant described in our Old Testament lesson is a failure: “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” Yet this least of men turns out to be the agent of redemption: the one who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors”.
As Walter Brueggemann notes, the first readers of Isaiah 53 would have understood the suffering servant to be “Israel — or an unnamed one at work in ancient Israel”. The Lord had delivered his people out of slavery in Egypt to be a sign to all the nations of his loving-kindness and his righteousness.
Israel’s power lay not in military might or wealth, but in the fact of its election, and its willingness to trust in God. Isaiah intensifies this message. Not only is the power of God revealed in the weakness and dependence of his chosen people, but — through his suffering servant — the transgressions and iniquities of others will be forgiven.
Brueggemann argues that this vision of redemptive suffering offers “a massive critique” of “the failed cultural values” of our “world of macho military consumerism”. It sets before us a new way of sacrificial living: “the only practice that here and there breaks the cycles of violence and makes life possible” (Westminster Bible Commentaries: Isaiah 40-66).
The message of our epistle is that, in Christ, God has become the suffering servant: the only one who can walk perfectly this way of sacrificial love, and so become the “source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. The writer contrasts the sinless offering of Christ with the sacrifices offered by sinful priests. The motives of all other human beings are conflicted. Only God can offer a true sacrifice, pouring himself out with no ulterior motive, in an act of utter gratuity.
For this reason, Christian worship is “never just an event organised by a particular group or set of people”. The initiative is always Christ’s. He is both priest and sacrifice (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy). When Augustine speaks of the Church as our “mother”, he is not denying that the earthly institution is corrupted by pride and self-regard. Rather, he is pointing to the Church’s sacramental life: the miraculous reality that, in the midst of her frailties, she can none the less feed and form her children with Christ’s perfect sacrifice.