In the recognizable Gospel for this week, James and John, disciples of Jesus asked him when he comes into glory, each one wants to sit on his right and the other on the left. Jesus reminded them they do not know what they are asking. A short time later, the other disciples became indignant about the request and Jesus told them all, if you wish to be first you must be a servant of all, just as he manifested his statement by the given up of his life for ransom of many.
There is little surprise James and John wished a premiere place in heaven. It is a typical human reaction. You and I do it almost every day. We strive and work to make our lives better. We work hard at our jobs, and sometimes we have taken on the expense and time to acquire a degree, be that a bachelor or advanced to attain a better life. We might even had set our goals on getting another and more expensive car, a bigger house or a better job. Our lives on earth are dedicated to getting ahead no matter where we are socially or economically. It is a part of our nature and the drive to survive. But with all natural urges or drives, reason and faith must temper it, lest it become an all-encompassing life’s work devoid of any spiritual and supernatural truth.
We are told the other disciples became indignant at James and John’s request. Again, no surprise here. The other disciples complained openly. We are not told exactly why they perceived the injustice, but a sure bet is the request of the two was a direct attack against their own personal and natural desire to get ahead. James and John beating them to the punch was too far because if the request of the brothers was granted, the other ten would hold the short straw. No one is happy being shut out of grandeur. All of the disciples, those asking, and those complaining had the same problem about Jesus’ mission and plan for humanity. Their simple but profound mistake was they were assuming eternal life and glory can be measured by earthly standards.
Rather, eternal life is the paradox of earthly life. One life has death, the other has eternity. The natural need to survive is supplanted by the need to be in communion with God and one another. The communion so strong there is no need to individually succeed. Success in eternal life is the bond of love by which what is good for one, is desired for all without any duplicity. Our tradition holds the saints in heaven pray for us to join them in the joy they celebrate each moment of eternity. For them there is no need to get ahead, no indignance of one having a higher place than another. All is one through Christ in eternal life.
In a somewhat veiled way, the message of Jesus to his disciples is to have them begin to think about eternal life from a brand-new perspective. He urges them, and us, to throw away the notion of comparing earthly success with eternal life. To be a servant of all is the best way to explain giving your life to another human being which is the foreshadowing of the life to come. It is the best way to explain this spiritual reality, by living in such a way on earth as the precursor of our hope in eternal life.
Christian charity, moral living and truth telling are all ways by which we break the connection of comparing an excellent earthly life to eternal life. By willingly tempering our natural urges and deep-seated selfishness to survive, we have opened the possibility beginning to understand eternal life as not being on the top of the heap, but rather, in loving communion with God and one another forever.
James, John and the other disciples I’m sure were gladly used to point out for future generations, the myopic vision that glory and eternity is something which can be measured by earthly success. They along with the other saints hope we learn the lesson.