Rich Romans placed seats at the front gates of their town houses for their clients. Clients were people dependent upon a patron for their jobs and intervening for them with higher authorities. When the patron went to the market or to court, his clients walked behind him to show his importance. There were literally his followers. The patron will in turn have been the client of someone greater and would have followed him to the Senate or another place of great importance. Mark’s gospel was written by and for Roman Christians and Mark seized on today’s story to show that Christians are not Jesus’ clients but his disciples and that disciples do not have clients but sisters and brothers. It is a hard lesson to learn, and one needed to be relearned in every generation, especially ours.
Although today’s gospel story took place in the backwater of Galilee every Roman could have identified with it, but Mark adds a few details for Christians.
Last week’s story was the rich young man who left Jesus crestfallen when he was told to give up his possessions. This was not lost on the 12 and Peter, speaking for all of them said to Jesus: “We have given up everything and followed you” Jesus told them that for following him they will receive: “a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come”.
To bring home the point he concludes with: “But many that are first will be last, and (the) last will be first.” (10:31) He quickly adds for the 3rd time that he is going to Jerusalem to be killed and they are going with him.
Immediately after this James and John ask Jesus to confirm their positions of leadership. James and John with Peter were part of the inner circle of disciples They were with Jesus at the transfiguration, which they misunderstood, and in the Garden of Getsemani, from which they ran. It is not surprising that they misunderstood what Jesus meant by glory especially about death and persecutions.
Jesus gives a very nuanced answer to this. To drink a cup with someone meant to share their experiences. The Old Testament spoke of both the cup of blessing – pleasant experiences – and the cup of wrath – painful ones. Following Jesus will bring extremes of both. Baptism meant participating in an overwhelming experience. The experience of losing everything with and for Jesus is found in Sacramental Baptism but goes well beyond it.
James and John said they could be so bathed, and Christian tradition holds that they did but what would have struck not only Jesus’ Jewish immediate audience and Mark’s Roman one as well is that drinking the cups of blessing and wrath and being overwhelmed by the death and resurrection of Jesus are the minimum expectations, the price of admission.
An eternally disturbing observation. Look at how much in the Gospels take place at dinners that go badly. People jockey for positions or try to get the best food and wine. Mark has shown us before that Jesus thinks that his disciples should strive to be first but not in the human sense of honor and status but in service to all. His concluding remarks are directed at the Romans. The gentiles see leadership as making their power and superior position felt by those under them. Jesus turns the world upside down an tells them to act like slaves. Gone is the image of clients following their leader in the streets and is replaced by the leader stooping down to the poor and needy as Jesus did when he washed the feet of the apostles.
What about us? We do not demand that people who we assist follow behind us when we are off to the supermarket, but it is rare to see a rich person serve a poor one. This section is clearly written for the leadership of the early church. Jesus summoned all the disciples to tell them how to be first. It has not been changed.
Until recently lay Catholics could say that you hoped that the Pope, Bishops and Priests read it well. Yet if leadership in the Church is just the clergy, she will shrivel. The Church cannot die but she can get ill.
Pope Francis has called a synod – Gathering – to discuss synods. A coming together to talk about coming together. This sounds excruciating bureaucratic, self-referential and doomed. Yet it is not. Few would say that the Church has shown great skill in listening and without sincere and effective listening there cannot be successful gathering. There are too few clergy even to maintain the church as it is much less respond to the challenges of our time. Even if there were more than enough the church is too complex to be led by only one type of person. Everyone is needed and everyone needs to hear today’s gospel.
We will no doubt get many full color fliers and posters to explain this process. We are told that it will begin in the parishes. How this will be done is still being developed but as I read the Pope, he is asking us to use some of the organizing techniques we as a parish were using before covid. The Pope speaks about the synod as a time to listen and accompany each other much like our individual relational and small group meetings. If the delta variant continues to dissipate and is not replaced with something more horrible, we will begin these again in person. We need to know each other as sisters and brothers to know how and where the Spirit is moving us.
Pope Francis realizes how the world is changing around us and asks us to participate in this process, in a phrase we will hear often in the next few years, not to create a new church but to forge a different one.