What were James and John thinking?
They had already heard Jesus’s chastisement of the 12 who were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus said then if one wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and the servant of all. Now they are asking for places of honor when Jesus comes into his glory. This, after he had already predicted his passion three times!
While the import of that had not really sunk in, they heard his call to the rich man to give up everything he owned to follow him. They heard Peter exclaim that the disciples have given up everything and followed him and ask what’s in it for them. Now, James and John had abandoned their family, their livelihood, and their possessions to go after Jesus. So they made their request, wanting to be recognized for their sacrifices by having a seat on either side of Jesus, the places of honor and respect.
What’s Jesus’s response? He asks them to go deeper in their faith, challenging them to modify their attitudes and behavior to be more in line with his, to undergo a baptism like his and to drink of the same cup. James and John answer confidently, and somewhat arrogantly, that they could, overlooking the persecution that Jesus said would ensue for his followers.
Jesus recognized in their request the competition that was continuing to develop among the disciples, their drive to be recognized for their faith and commitment.
And what was true in Jesus’s time is true today. Even when it comes to faith, sacrifices, and good works we want to be recognized, don’t we.
One time a person came to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and confessed to me that anytime a good deed was done by him-her, he-she made sure that it was known that he-she was responsible. I gave a penance that the person admitted was extremely hard: to do a good deed in secret, telling nobody and giving no clues who was responsible.
I hold out that same challenge to each of us: do a good deed without looking for recognition or praise. Just do it!
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B18