Friday, October 16, 2009

Lectionary Notes

A Note on the Sunday between 16 and 22 October
18 October AD 2009
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 29, Year B

Since certain other commitments are weighing heavily this week, it seems better to provide one interesting comment on the Gospel reading than a number of trite comments on the whole Sunday lectionary. Useful comments on the other readings may be found as usual at the Diocese of Montreal’s Revised Common Lectionary site:
The point I want to make is not often found in commentaries. indeed, although I know I read or heard it somewhere, I cannot remember where. I can only be sure it is not my own clever idea.
The Holy Gospel: Mark 10.35-45
The incident reported in this reading follows immediately Jesus’ third prediction of his passion. As with the other predictions, the disciples’ concern for rank and leadership in the community and the kingdom shows how little they understood what Jesus was telling them.
This time the stars of the story are James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They and Peter seemed to have formed an inner group of disciples : they alone were present in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the Transfiguration. They come to Jesus with a request for the places of honour “when he comes into his kingdom”. Commentators are not agreed on what this means. The idea of being seated at his right and left had would seem to refer to the messianic banquet. We might be content, though to follow the early writer Theophylact, who simply said “Now the above mentioned disciples thought that He was going up to Jerusalem, to reign there”.
The Lord’s reponse to their request is clear. He says: “You do not understand what you mean when you ask this. I have just told you that the Son of Man, the Messiah, is going to suffer. Are you able to go to the same fate?” His reference to the cup becomes clear in Gethsemane: when he prays, “remove this cup from me”. (For the references see the RCL site, or a Bible with good notes.) It is also clear that when the brothers say (with a speed and brevity that makes it all too clear they still don’t understand), “We are able!” that they will, indeed drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism.
Jesus goes on to say that although they will share his cup and baptism, “but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” [v. 40]. These words are rich in meaning. One valuable comment comes from Eduard Schweizer:
"The fact that Jesus has left open the question for whom these places of honour have been prepared (by God) makes it very clear that to Jesus, discipleship does not allow one to claim any special reward. In a very pointed manner, Jesus rejects the idea that suffering is meritorious. The fact that one suffers in some specific way as a part of sharing in the pathway of Jesus does not qualify him to receive a reward, neither does it allow him to make any special demand. It is certain, however, that God will never forget it."
For the Lord does not say who it is these places have been prepared for. St Matthew’s version adds the words “by my Father” [Mt 20.23], but this does not answer the question.
Now when we remember that this incident is the sequel to Jesus’ prediction of his passion, and take seriously the references to the cup and the baptism, we should expect that these words about his right and left hand also have a relation to the Passion. Indeed, the Gospels do show us two persons who are granted the places at Jesus’s right hand and his left: for in Mark 15 27 we read, “And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left.” (There is no difference between saying “on his right hand ….” and “on his right …” : same expression is used in both cases in Greek.)
Long ago, Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, commenting on St Matthew’s version of the request of James and John wrote:
“One at least of these brethren {sc John] saw the Lord on His Cross—on His right and left hand the crucified thieves. Bitter indeed must the remembrance of this ambitious prayer have been at that moment! Luther remarks, ‘The flesh ever seeks to be glorified, before it is crucified: exalted before it is abased.’” [The New Testament for English Readers, vol I, part I, 1868].
I am still working on the rest of this Gospel passage, for there is no little danger in the teaching that who would be first must be a servant! How many men and women have found that taking the way of a servant is the way of power and control, in a sense far different from what Jesus had in mind. We may think of the odious and servile Uriah Heap in David Copperfield, of the woman in one of Lewis’ pieces of whom it is said: "She's the sort of woman who lives for others—you can always tell the others by their hunted expression" [The Screwtape Letters], of countless secretaries of committees. But this is all going into the sermon for Sunday, and I must now stop.

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