Set against the theology of reciprocity that is so prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures, both of the readings for the Feast of St. James are remarkable. Throughout the Deuteronomic Corpus, the first fourteen books of the Bible, we hear one example after another of how the children of Israel thought of their relationship with God as a reciprocal covenant. Even their covenant was stated in a way that expressed their belief that God would reward them if they obeyed and would punish them if they disobeyed. The stories of the patriarchs, the judges, the kings and the prophets that inhabit these stories all express that if Israel is faithful to God, God will be faithful to them.
The opening pages of the Christian Scriptures begin to tear down this type of thinking from the very outset of Jesus’ ministry. John is the faithful prophet but dies at the behest of an adulterous king. Jesus, the truly just man who is without sin, dies the most ignominious death known to humanity at that time. The apostles all die the death of martyrs with the possible exception of John who dies in exile. St. Paul is a classic example who suffered tremendously for the sake of the Gospel.
When he writes to the Corinthians, he sets out a notion that is completely contrary to his philosophical and theological tradition. God asks those who claim to be disciples to suffer at the hands of others.
Is this really something new? Not really. If the Israelites had been perceptive, they would have realized that their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land was a metaphor for human life. Forty years was the expected span of life in those days. So the journey through the desert was God’s way of revealing to Israel and to us that to be human means to suffer. The question that is posed to us is simply this: “What will we do with that suffering?”
When the mother of the sons of Zebedee approaches Jesus, she is seeking honor for her sons. Honor is the driving force of the culture of the Middle East even today. The people of Jesus’ time and the people of the Middle East today will do anything to preserve their sense of honor, to “save face.” Because suffering was thought to be punishment from God, it also was seen as shameful or dishonorable. So Jesus’ answer to the woman was a paradox. If one wants the honor of sitting at the left and right of Jesus, then one must forgo the honor that is perceived through human eyes. Honor in God’s kingdom is bestowed upon those who remain faithful even in what humans consider dishonorable circumstances.
Our journey to the Promised Land is also a journey through a desert – the desert of human existence. By uniting our suffering with that of Jesus, we will be honored by God at the end of our journey. Knowing that we would falter without his strength, Jesus left us the Eucharist as food for that journey. We are blessed by the presence of Jesus holding us up as we stumble through this life toward the glory of the next.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator