The Power of Suffering and Service
Pleasure, Possessions and Power
We are created to be happy. Our pursuit of happiness revolves around, and often misled by, the three P-wants: Pleasure, Possession, and Power. Pleasure is the ability to enjoy positive mental and physical states. Possession is the endowment to have access to the fundamental needs of human beings. And power is the possibility to have agency over the environment and people around us. The 3 P’s may contribute to happiness, and at the same time, an exaggerated focus on them could leave us unhappy. This is our struggle: to balance our need and want for pleasure, possession and power.
The core content of the temptations of Jesus, in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-11) and even in the gospel of John (Jn 6:30-31; 7:3; 6:15), was precisely this: (1) “Tell these stones to turn into loaves” (pleasure); (2) “I will give you all these” (possession); (3) “If you are the Son of God…” (power). At this moment of discernment, and consistently in his life, Jesus chooses the path of suffering, detachment and service. Jesus wants his followers to attain happiness, rather than only pleasure, possession and power.
Those who are members of religious orders in the Catholic Church make three vows: chastity, poverty and obedience. These three vows are expressions of the commitment to live radically the Christian values that challenge the human desire for pleasure, possession and power. Religious life, which originated in the church during a time of complacency after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, remains a call to radical Christian life even in the contemporary culture.
If we have been following the gospel readings of these three consecutive Sundays, all from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, we notice that we have been invited to reflect on these three temptations that we face. (It will be interesting for us to read sometime during the week the whole of Mk 10 in the light of our reflection this morning.) The gospel passage of the 27th Sunday (Mk 10:2-16) invited us to reflect on marriage and family: Christian marriage is not to be based on the sole principle of pleasure, but on faithfulness and love. The gospel passage of the 28th Sunday (the last Sunday: Mk 10:17-30) was on the inability of the rich man to be a disciple of Jesus because of his possessions. Christian life is to be based on detachment and simplicity. Today, the 29th Sunday, the gospel reading (MK 10:35-45) invites us to reflect on power. As Christians we influence our environment not through power and control, but in service and willingness to suffer.
The embarrassment: The Apostles vying for power
The underlying theme here is Discipleship – one of the favorite themes of Mark. Mark 10:32 (which we didn’t hear read today) states: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem; Jesus was walking on ahead of them; they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive. Once more taking the Twelve aside Jesus began to tell them what was going to happen to him…” Mark clearly paints a picture here of Jesus making his final journey to Jerusalem, contemplating his impending suffering and death. He walks ahead of them as a ‘master’ (rabbi), leader and shepherd. There is a large crowd following him, very hopeful of a share in the glories of the Messiah, and knowing very little of what is actually in store for them – suffering. Jesus does not want cheap popularity, making empty promises. He is not for quantity (the number of disciples), but for quality (depth of discipleship). It is in this context that the episode of today unfolds itself.
James and John approach Jesus to request a share in his power (v.37): “Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.” This was, no doubt, a very embarrassing event to all the apostles in the post-Easter Christian communities. Embarrassing, at least on three counts:
· This insensitive request comes exactly when Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, contemplating and even talking openly about his impending suffering. In Mk 10:33-34 Jesus tells them, “Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again”;
· This ambitious request comes from James and John, who together with Peter formed the inner circle of the disciples of Jesus – having the privilege to witness some unique events including the transfiguration;
· But above all, as verse 41 tells us, “When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John”, because all the apostles had a vested interest to covet a share in what they supposed to be the political ‘powers’ of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark was the first of the gospels to be written. It is the shortest of the gospels. Mark adds no flourishes. He likes to call a spade, a spade! Mark narrates the story of today rather indifferently. But by the time the Gospel of Matthew came to be written, this story had perhaps become too embarrassing to the apostles. Therefore, Matthew would reduce the embarrassment by bringing in the mother of James and John, the wife of Zebedee, to make this very political request (Mt 20:20-23). And Luke and John, on the other hand, would just not mention this story!
Meaning of Discipleship: Willingness to endure suffering
But the message of Jesus is very consistent and clear, right from his first temptations. He has made a choice to save the world by being a suffering servant, as Isaiah proclaims in today’s first reading (Is 53). Jesus could have saved the world by an impressive show of power by working miracles like jumping down from top of the temple, or by an oppressive show of power like forming a zealous army and taking control of Jerusalem. But this would be against the Will of God, his Father. In the beginning, God willed to create human beings with their free will, and God cannot go against His own will. Therefore, the Kingdom of God (the reign of God in love, peace and joy) cannot be established through political power, but only through the transformation of human hearts. And this would imply, the Son of God has to suffer and die.
And the disciples of Jesus – James and John, the other apostles, and we too – have to be willing to share in the cup of suffering. Yes, power for a disciple of Jesus is the inner strength that makes it possible to serve and to suffer. This does not mean that we go round looking for trouble. Nor do we take pleasure in suffering. Suffering will remain suffering. But the fact that God in the person of Jesus himself had to suffer gives us the strength to bear the suffering. Human suffering does have meaning, when borne out of love.
Yes, Christian suffering is not a hopeless endeavor. Resurrection will follow the suffering and death. But this is purely the grace of God: “The cup that I shall drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I shall be baptized you shall be baptized, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted” (Mk 10:39-40)
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.