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Lent Third Sunday

Season of Lent

Third Sunday: Matthew 20:17-28
THE FIRST AMONG YOU MUST BE THE SERVANT

INTRODUCTION

During the season of Great Lent, we prepare ourselves to take part in the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ along with his suffering for us through his passion and crucifixion. It was Jesus’ pre-planned undertaking, and he predicted it often to prepare his disciples. Here we reflect on Jesus’ third prediction on his passion, death, and resurrection, followed by his instructions on how a disciple should behave as a servant and aspire for a higher position in heaven through committed service than competing for prominence in this world.

BIBLE TEXT

The Third Prediction of the Passion

(Matthew 20:17) When Jesus was going to Jerusalem, he took his twelve disciples aside and said to them on the way, (18) “See, we are going to Jerusalem. There the Son of Man will be given over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law who will condemn him to death. (19) They will hand him over to the foreigners who will make fun of him, scourge him and crucify him. But he will be raised to life on the third day.”

The Request of James and John

(20) Then the mother of James and John came to Jesus with her sons, and she knelt down to ask a favor. (21) Jesus said to her, “What do you want?” And she answered, “Here are my two sons. Grant that they may sit, one at your right and one at your left, when you are in your kingdom.” (22) Jesus said to the brothers, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They answered, “We can.” (23) Jesus replied, “You shall indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right or at my left is not for me to grant. That will be for those for whom the Father has prepared it.” (24) The other ten heard all this and were angry with the two brothers. (25) Then Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the powerful oppress them. (26) It shall not be so among you. Whoever wants to be more important in your group must become your servant. (27) And whoever wants to be first must make himself your slave. (28) Be like the Son of Man who has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to redeem many.”

INTERPRETATION

The Third Prediction of the Passion

(Matthew 20:17) When Jesus was going to up Jerusalem, he took his twelve disciples aside and said to them on the way…

Going up to Jerusalem
Jerusalem is in a high mountain region 2,500 feet above sea level. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in that place. Regardless of where one was traveling from, that person would go up to reach Jerusalem. The travelers feel climbing when they walk on the street to Jerusalem. So Jesus was climbing up to Jerusalem.

“Going up to Jerusalem,” has also a spiritual meaning because it was the site of the Temple of God, “the Mountain of the Lord’s House.” (Isaiah 2:2). According to the prophesies, Jerusalem was the peak of the world from where the Lord’s instruction would come to all nations. “In the last days, the mountain of the LORD’s House will be set up as the highest mountain and will tower over the hills; then all nations will stream to it.” (Isaiah 2:2). “Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go to the mountain of the LORD, to the House of the God of Jacob, so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths. For the Law comes from Zion and from Jerusalem the word of the LORD.’” (Micah 4:2). Once the Law came from Mount Sinai through Moses. Later it came through Jesus on Mount Zion or Jerusalem.

He took the twelve [disciples] aside.
The context is clearer in Mark 10:32, “They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking on ahead of them. The Twelve were worried and anxious and those who followed were afraid. Once more Jesus took the Twelve aside to tell them what was to happen to him.” The disciples were reluctant to go with Jesus to Jerusalem because they knew that the life of Jesus would be in danger there. However, Jesus had the determination to offer his self-sacrifice. So Jesus went ahead towards Jerusalem, while the disciples were far behind him. Jesus called them to the roadside to share with them, in private, his mission and action plan so the disciples would know what to expect.

(18) “See, we are going to Jerusalem. There the Son of Man will be given over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law who will condemn him to death. 

The Son of Man
The Hebrew phrase “the Son of Man” means a human being (Ezekiel 2:1). However, in Prophet Daniel’s vision, the same phrase (7:13) gained divine qualities because the son of man came with the clouds of heaven. Ordinary humans cannot travel on the clouds. Jesus chose this phrase for himself. So, it shows the human and divine nature of Jesus.

Will be handed over
Out of the three passion predictions of Jesus, this is the most detailed. The other two are in Matthew 16:21–23 and 17:22–23.

The phrase implies that the enemies or soldiers did not find him at the time of his arrest until Judas handed him over to them. Judas was in the group of 12 when Jesus foretold this. However, the disciples did not understand it well. Luke documents in 18:34, “The apostles could make nothing out of this; the meaning of these words remained a mystery to them and they did not understand what he said.”

To the chief priests and the Scribes
This was a reference to the Sanhedrin that contained over 70 leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The full title was “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders,” (Matthew 16:21). This was the supreme court in the religious and political matters of the Jews, although the Roman authorities had restricted them.

(19) “They will hand him over to the foreigners who will make fun of him, scourge him and crucify him. But he will be raised to life on the third day.”

Jesus was sure of what all would happen at the end of his life in this world. He took them for himself rather than dreadful things occurred to him. All parts of this third prediction happened: handed him over to the Gentiles (Mt. 27:2), mocked (Mt. 27:27–30), scourged (Mt. 27:26), crucified (Mt. 27:31, 35), and raised on the third day (Mt. 28:6). This was Jesus’ prediction on the humiliation and abuse that he would undergo from the pagan soldiers of the Roman authorities. They expressed their hostility towards the Jews by shifting it on Jesus and making him a scapegoat.

Hand him over
After Judas handed over Jesus to the Jewish soldiers (Matthew 26:49), they handed him over to the High Priest and the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:57), then the Sanhedrin handed over Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor (Matthew 27:1-1–2), Pilate handed over Jesus to King Herod (Luke 23:7), Herod handed over Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:11), Pilate handed over Jesus to the public to decide between Jesus and Barabbas (Matthew 27: 17), Pilate then handed over Jesus to the soldiers to crucify him (Matthew 27: 26). Jesus predicted that his disciples will also face similar situations: “they will hand you over to their courts and they will flog you in their synagogues.” (Matthew 10:17).

Crucified
Crucifixion was the most disgraceful and brutal manner of capital punishment. Assyrians and Babylonians started it. Persians developed it by the sixth century B.C. Romans perfected it and used it until the Christian Emperor Constantine I abolished it in the fourth century A.D. According to Deuteronomy 21:23, anyone hanged on a tree was a curse of God. Jesus became the “curse” for us sinners. St. Paul wrote: “Christ rescued us from the curse of the Law by becoming cursed himself for our sake, as it is written: There is a curse on everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13).

Raised
Jesus’ resurrection also involved the other persons of the Most Holy Trinity. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:4, “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.” Examples of other references of God the Father raising Jesus are: Acts 2:32; 2:24; 10:40; 13:30 and Galatians 1:1. Jesus himself came back to life according to John 2:19: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” In John 10:18, Jesus said, “I lay it down of my own free will. It is mine to lay down and to take up again; this charge I received from my Father.” St. Paul in Romans 8:11 and St. Peter in 1 Peter 3:18 specify that the Spirit of God raised Jesus from the dead. Thus, the Bible attributes Jesus’ resurrection to all the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

On the third day
Three days does not mean 72 hours or three full days. The Jews counted even a part of the day as one day. So, the death of Jesus at 3:00 P.M. on Friday, and burial before 6:00 P.M. was the first day. Friday from 6:00 P.M. to Saturday 6:00 P.M. was the second day. Early morning before sunrise on Sunday was the third day.

The Request of James and John

(20) Then the mother of James and John came to Jesus with her sons, and she knelt down to ask a favor.

The mother of James and John
Even though the request came from the mother, it was also from her sons. According to Mark 10:35, James and John were also active in this request. They might have asked their mother to intercede for them because they were afraid of the response of Jesus or how the other disciples would react to them. The Bible scholars infer that the mother was Salome, a (half / cousin) sister of Mary. So, she took the freedom to ask a favor from her nephew, Jesus.

Did him homage.
Unlike others who came for favors worshipped or expressed their faith in Jesus, Salome, after bowing down, presented her request. According to Mark 10:35 her sons, James and John even introduced their request saying, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” This request from the wife and the sons of Zebedee is a typical example of our prayer where we only present our request for favors from God without worshipping Him in word and deed.

(21) Jesus said to her, “What do you want?” And she answered, “Here are my two sons. Grant that they may sit, one at your right and one at your left, when you are in your kingdom.”

The apostles came to realize the actual nature of Jesus’ Kingdom only later. They believed that Jesus the Messiah would establish the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem soon. As a chosen people, they were competing for higher positions in that kingdom. The term “sit” in the Bible denotes to remain in power over others. By asking the favor of sitting on both sides of Jesus, the mother and her sons wanted a place higher than the other apostles. Jesus had promised the apostles that they would reign in the kingdom he would establish (Matthew 19:28). However, James and John wanted to be the first among the apostles.

Whenever Jesus presented his upcoming passion and death, the disciples were debating on who among them would be in the highest rank. This showed their worldly desires before the Holy Spirit came upon them.

(22) Jesus said to the brothers, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They answered, “We can.”

You do not know.
“You” can mean singular or plural. Jesus used it here in the plural sense and addressed to James and John. They replied to the question.

Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?
The question was again addressed not to the mother but to the two sons.

Cup in the Bible is a symbol of life in a positive or negative sense. In the positive sense, a cup could mean whatever God fills in one’s life (Psalm 11:6 16:5), or the blessings of life that God provides (Psalm 23:5), or a thank-offering from man to God (Exodus 29:40, Psalm 116:13).

The ‘drinking cup’ has special meaning in the Bible. Just like many people have their personal cup at home for regular use, some Biblical characters had the same. Pharaoh had his own cup and a personal cup bearer. Joseph, the second in command of Pharaoh, had a silver cup, and he used to play a trick with that on his brothers. For Jesus, he used the term ‘cup’ in a spiritual sense to signify his passion, death, and resurrection.

Cup also signified the wine that it contained because the cup was to hold the wine in it. So, when Jesus said, “Can you drink the cup?” the meaning was, could they drink the wine that he would drink. Sharing one cup of wine by the groom and bride was a Hebrew custom for betrothal. When the groom offered the wine and bride drank from it, she was agreeing to share all the joys and hardships of his life. Jesus was asking them whether they were ready to share with his sufferings.

(23) Jesus replied, “You shall indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right or at my left is not for me to grant. That will be for those for whom the Father has prepared it.”

My cup you will indeed drink.
James and John, along with the other apostles, fulfilled this prophecy of Jesus. James was the first martyr among the apostles (Acts 12:2). Herod Agrippa I, son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great, martyred James in 44 A.D., 14 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. “He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword” (Acts 12:2) to please the Jews who wanted to suppress the rapid growth of Christ’s disciples.

John was the younger brother of James. So, the Bible mentions John’s name after the name of James. John centralized his ministry in Ephesus, the western coast of Asia Minor. The Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96) attempted to kill John by plunging him in boiled oil. But he was unhurt by divine intervention. So, the emperor exiled John to Patmos Island, where he authored the book of Revelation based on the vision he had there. After Domitian’s death, John returned to Ephesus during the reign of Emperor Trajan. John wrote the gospel while he was in Ephesus and he died there around A.D. 100 at an old age.

Not mine to give
Though Jesus did not promise what the two disciples and their mother asked, Jesus granted what he could during his public ministry. The two were among the first four (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) initial disciples Jesus selected, and they were prominent among the others (Mark 13:3). Peter, James, and John were the intimate group of Jesus. He admitted only these three at some important occasions: Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter after her death (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration experience (Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:1; Luke 9:28), and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:33) 

For whom it has been prepared by my Father.
This is an example of Jesus’ submission to the Father who controls everything (1 Cor. 15:27-28). Jesus knew and respected his powers and his limits.

(24) The other ten heard all this and were angry with the two brothers.

The apostles’ power hunger was natural. Two of them taking advantage over others was also a normal human response. The ten were afraid that if Jesus would grant that request, they would become subservient to the two. This gave Jesus an opportunity to present the style of leadership he wanted to instill in them.

25) Then Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the powerful oppress them.”

Jesus here acknowledged the worldly leadership style. But he wanted his disciples just the opposite of that.

(26) “It shall not be so among you. Whoever wants to be more important in your group must become your servant. (27) And whoever wants to be first must make himself your slave.”

Jesus did not criticize his disciples over their ambition for greater positions. His point was that they should serve others for God’s sake and thus aspire to higher positions in heaven. Christian leadership is quite the opposite of the worldly leadership. Instead of lording over burdens on others, the disciples of Jesus must serve others and help to carry their burdens. Instead of exhibiting authority over the subjects, the Christian leaders should be humble servants or slaves for them. Jesus showed this by washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13: 4-15).

(28) “Be like the Son of Man who has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to redeem many.”

To serve
Jesus was at the service of his family until he left home for his public life, and then at the service of all humanity. He served the people by preaching and extending his service to all who asked his favor. He demanded no service or favor from others.

To give his life as a ransom for many.
The word “ransom” means a price demanded, or the redeemer’s payment to redeem a slave or a captive. By the fall of the first parents, humans became captives of the Devil like a child born to slave parents. We are under condemnation (Ephesians 2:3; Romans 3:9-20; 3:23; 1 John 5:19) and curse (Galatians 3:10). A slave child cannot rescue himself regardless of how much he tries. So, God came among us to rescue us. Jesus, who is not a slave of the Devil or sin, suffered and died for us giving his life as a ransom for our liberation from eternal damnation.

For many
The term “many” is a reference to Isaiah 53:11-12 where it did not mean for a few, but the outcome of Christ’s redemption, because God continues to give us the freedom to choose between the good and evil. Jesus used “many” when he instituted the Holy Eucharist. After blessing the cup, he said: “This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many.” (Mark 14:24; Matthew 26:28). The rabbis and the Qumran community used this term for the community of faith or the chosen people. St. Paul also uses “all” and “many” as interchangeable terms in his letter to Romans verses 18 and 19. So Jesus intended his redemption for all. Many will find salvation from him.

MESSAGE

1. Jesus journeyed toward Jerusalem, the religious center of the Jews, and one day a center for all the children of God. Our spiritual journey is always to our parish church and through it to our God. The lent reminds us to make this journey more frequent and meaningful.

2. While heading towards Jerusalem, Jesus was sure of the brutal torture and painful crucifixion he would undergo. However, he was also sure of his resurrection and the accomplishment of his mission. Every missionary or Christian that faces religious persecution is also undergoing a similar experience. We need to pray for such Christian heroes and support them. We also shall not give up our faith and hope amid challenges in our Christian living.

3. Prayer is not just asking favors from God like the mother of James and John. It also involves worship to God and our commitment for the Kingdom of God, as Jesus demanded from the two disciples.

4. At the Holy Mass, we share the one cup of Jesus meaning that we, as the Christian community, make the commitment with Jesus to share our life of hardships and joys for the Kingdom of God. After the Holy Mass, we leave the church to fulfill our mission that we receive from God in our daily lives.

5. Christian leadership is for service. So, popes from Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) use the phrase “Servant of the Servants of God” to introduce themselves. Whatever be our status in the family, workplace, community, or in the church, we should consider ourselves as the servants of God and of others. That attitude will bring joy and satisfaction in our lives.

6. With full understanding of his future, Jesus took up the passion, death, and resurrection. As his disciples, we also follow his footsteps by taking our cross rather than fleeing from it.