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Commentary to the 29th Sunday In Ordinary Time - Year B

Fernando Armellini - Sat, Oct 16th 2021



The first schism in the Church occurred before the eyes of Jesus: two disciples against ten and ten against two (Mk 10:35-41). The reason for the dispute: not a theological discussion or the rejection of some dogma, but the eagerness for power, the competition for the first places. It was the beginning of a painful history of ecclesial divisions and conflicts, always determined by petty rivalries.

When someone wants to prevail over others, the group crumbles. But not even the democratic system eliminates quarrels because it does not cure them at the root; it is only a game of balances, an attempt to reconcile opposing egoisms.

Jesus constituted the Twelve so that in the world, they would be the sign of a new society in which all pretensions to domination were abolished, and a single ambition was cultivated: the service of the poorest. An arduous task. From the beginning, the mentality of this world infiltrated the Church as well, and over the centuries, the criteria of this world re-emerged: domination, possession, subjugation of others.

The tiara, the pope's famous headdress, was the symbol of the authority and universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. Its origin remains uncertain, but in the thirteenth century, it consisted of a single crown, in the next century of two and, a few decades later, three crowns superimposed, symbols of the three kingdoms over which the pope extended his power: heaven, earth and underground. Elected Pope, Paul VI made a historic gesture: he placed it on his head and immediately took it off, this time forever. The triregnum was too equivocal a symbol, too compromised, incompatible with the only glorious diadem that had adorned the Master's head, the crown of thorns.

 To internalize the message, we will repeat: "Great is the one who serves."


First Reading: Isaiah 53:2a.3a.10-11

People want to win, not lose; they seek to dominate, not to serve. God thinks oppositely and, to educate his people to accept the logic of the gift of one's life, since the Old Testament, he has indicated a model: his faithful Servant. We have already come across this mysterious character several times; today, he is presented to us again to prepare us to understand and accept the challenging message of the Gospel.

In the first part of the passage (vv. 2-3), the humble aspect of this Servant is described: he sprouts like a small shrub in the desert, he grows in a land without water, he has none of the characteristics that attract people's attention: beauty, strength, wealth; on the contrary, he is weak, despised, defeated.

The second part of the passage (vv. 10-11) highlights God's opposite judgment. What people consider a failure, for the Lord is a success. Through sacrifice, suffering, and the gift of self, God carries out his plans of salvation. Precisely because he is the victim of hatred, injustice, and violence, the Servant frees his persecutors from their iniquities. He constitutes the perfect image of Jesus who saved humanity not by dominating them but by humbling himself, kneeling before them to serve them, giving his own life.

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:14-16

The synoptic gospels report that he was subjected to the devil's temptations at the beginning of his public life. The evangelists do not return to this subject later. Only Luke suggests that these temptations continued even afterward; he reports that "When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time" (Lk 4:13).

The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that is offered to us today clearly addresses this theme. Christ can understand our weaknesses because he was tempted in all things like us. The only difference is that he never yielded to sin while we are often unfaithful to God.

This statement is cause for great consolation. It shows us a Jesus who is very close, sensitive to our problems. He did not pretend to be a man; he was one; he went through all the difficulties that we must face, and he knows how difficult and costly it is to remain faithful to God, especially when we are tried by pain.

A little later in the same letter, the author, returning to the subject, adds: "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb 5:8).

Gospel: Mark 10:35-45

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; he precedes his disciples with a quick step, and they follow him fearfully because, twice, he has already explained to them the destination of the journey. In the verses immediately preceding today's passage, the Master announces his destiny for the third time: he will be insulted, condemned to death, scourged, and killed (vv. 32-34).

As a reaction, we would expect the disciples to try to dissuade him from continuing his journey, suggesting that he stop for a moment to wait for better times. Nothing of the sort. Yet it is impossible that, after hearing such clear words about the destiny of Jesus, they should continue to delude themselves that he is going up to Jerusalem to begin the messianic period, understood as the kingdom of this world.

They know very well that their master must pass through humiliation and death, but they have already begun to think about what will happen next. At this point, their senselessness reaches its peak. Their dreams of glory do not stop even in the face of death; they manage to overcome even this prospect, which is now taken for granted. This reveals how deeply rooted in man are the lust for power and the aspiration to occupy places of honor.

James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, present themselves to Jesus and, in front of everyone, without a hint of discretion, tell him, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you" (v. 35). They do not ask "please," but they demand, as one who claims a right.

They remember that, after the first announcement of the passion (Mk 8:31), Jesus spoke of the day when "he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" (Mk 8:38). They removed all the rest of the Master's discourse, but this term 'glory,' employed by Jesus only once, they never forgot. They linked it to the rabbis' teaching, who, referring to the messiah, assures that he "will sit on the throne of glory" to judge and that the righteous will sit at his side. James and John explicitly claim to be elevated to heaven, to be able to rule there as well. It is the boldest and blindest of arrogance; it shows where the will to emerge, inherent in the human heart, can lead.

When Mark writes this passage, things have radically changed: James has already given his life for Christ, died a martyr in Jerusalem (Acts 12:2), and John is generously devoting himself to the cause of the Gospel. In the end, therefore, they have proved that they have understood the Master's teaching and the primitive community has an immense reverence for them. Thus, Luke avoids reporting the episode, and Matthew modifies it, assuring them that it was their mother who had come forward, and places more polite words on the woman's lips (Mt 20:20-24). The event, however, unfolded as Mark related it.

The two brothers were not mere disciples but two eminent figures of the early church, and yet, faced with the central proposal of the Christian message, they too showed total incomprehension for a long time. They adapted, albeit with some difficulty and after raising objections, to some of the moral demands of the Master, that of indissoluble marriage for example; they abandoned everything to follow him, but when he spoke of the renunciation of domination, of power... they just could not understand him.

Mark's goal is to make the Christians of his communities reflect. Even after violent persecution such as Nero's, the competition for the top positions re-emerged among them. The most exemplary Christians, the most committed, the most available to the service of their brothers and sisters, those who actively collaborate in all community initiatives, are often the most tempted to impose themselves on others, and their naive desire to excel always ends up creating disagreements. We should not be surprised that these weaknesses appear; even the most eminent apostles were victims of them.

When among his disciples the pretensions of honors, of privileges, of first places resurfaced, Jesus did not show himself to be tender (Mk 8:33; 9:33-36) because every ambition, even that which may appear innocent, calls into question the central point of his proposal. With James and John, he was harsh and severe: "You do not know what you are asking for." Then, to help them understand, he introduced two images: the chalice and baptism.

 The first refers to a well-known practice in Israel: the father or the one who occupied the first place at the table, as a gesture of esteem and affection, used to offer a drink from his cup to the person he preferred. This image is often taken up in the Bible, sometimes in a positive sense: "The Lord is part of my inheritance and my cup" (Ps 16:5), most often in a negative sense: "Jerusalem, you have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath" (Is 51:17).

The cup indicates the destiny, good or bad, of a person. Jesus knows that a cup of sorrow awaits him, a cup from which he would like to be spared (Mk 14:36), but which he must drink to enter into glory.

The image of baptism has the same meaning: it indicates the passage through the waters of death. The sufferings and afflictions to which the righteous are subjected are often compared in the Bible to immersion in deep waters or to the rush of rushing waters (Ps 69:2-3; 42:8).

Are they ready, James and John, to drink the cup of the Master? Are they willing to follow him on the path of the gift of life? Do they feel like plunging with him into the waters of suffering and death? They have understood and, to reach their goal, they are determined even to suffer.

Jesus respects their slowness in understanding God's plans. He announces that they too will share his destiny of suffering and death one day, they will drink from his same cup, and they will give their lives. Then he answers their request: the place in glory is a gift from the Father; it cannot be conquered by presenting merits. They make the mistake of imagining the kingdom of God on the model of the kingdoms of this world where there is a race to the top. They fail to understand that, before God, one cannot make claims based on good works: from him, one receives everything as a gift (v. 40).

The indignant reaction of the other ten shows that they too are far from having assimilated the thought of the Master, and here is the schism within the group. The community of disciples reproduces what happened to Israel after the death of King Solomon. Rehoboam's frenzy for power had caused the division of the kingdom: two tribes had lined up against ten and ten against two (1 Kings 12). The history of their people should have taught the disciples something.

Jesus again takes the floor to clarify the theme of hierarchies and the exercise of power within his community (vv. 41-45). After calling the disciples to himself, he does so, an expression that in Mark serves to focus attention on a particularly important message. "You know," Jesus explains, "that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt" (v. 42).

The Master's subtle irony towards the holders of power shines through from the expression "those who are recognized as rulers," an irony that becomes more explicit in the parallel passage in Luke where Jesus speaks of those who "exercise complete dominion" over others and, what is more... "are addressed as 'Benefactors'" (Lk 22:25). The analysis of how these leaders fulfill their task serves Jesus to define how the ministry of presidency within the Christian community is to be carried out.

The disciples have various models of authority before their eyes. They know the political and religious leaders, the rabbis, the scribes, the temple priests. They all exercise power in the same way: they give orders, claim privileges, demand to be revered as the ceremony prescribes; in front of them, one must kneel, kiss the hand, carefully dose the titles choosing those convenient and appropriate to the position and prestige of each.

Is it from these authorities that the disciples must be inspired? There should be no doubt or perplexity on this point. Jesus gives a clear and peremptory order to his disciples: "Among you, not so!" (v. 43). None of these types of authority can be taken as an example.

The model to imitate—he explains—is the slave, who occupies the lowest level in society, the one to whom everyone is entitled to give orders. Just as the servant is always attentive, day and night, to the desires of his master, so he who carries out the ministry of presidency in the Christian community must consider everyone as his superior, must feel that he is the last and the servant of all.

The disciples of the rabbis followed the master and learned his teachings, obeyed his every order, walked while he rode on a donkey, kept their distance, and volunteered to perform all services, even the most menial, such as cleaning his house and washing his feet. They were willing to lower themselves to one day become rabbis themselves and be entitled to the same privileges and the same high social position as the master.

Jesus rejects this logic; he does not want anyone to serve him. He places himself in the midst of his own as the one who serves and reminds everyone that "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (v. 45). He does not demand that they wash his feet; he himself stoops to wash the disciples' feet.

To complete the picture, we can recall other attitudes that Jesus harshly condemned, attitudes to which the Christian must feel an instinctive repulsion: making a spectacle of oneself, being noticed (Mt 23:5), going dressed in uniforms, in particular clothes, to distinguish oneself from others (Mk 12:38); claiming places of honor at feasts, the first seats in the synagogues; demanding to be called "rabbi," "teacher," "father" (Mt 23:6-10). The strict message of the Master is addressed to those in the Church who are invested with authority but not only. Anyone who wants to follow the Master must consider himself the "servant" of all.

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