Work just begun

By: By Father Douglas Grandon

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 18

Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5,18-19,20,22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

IN 1782, George Washington became America’s hero after leading his ragtag, Colonial army to victory over the red coats of England. In his farewell address to his men, he pledged that he would leave public life forever.

In 1787, however, Washington was elected the president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In 1789, he was chosen to be the first president of the United States. After serving four difficult years, Washington longed to return home to his beloved Mount Vernon, but he was persuaded to serve a second term.

Some hoped Washington would declare himself emperor of the United States; nearly everyone wanted him to serve a third term. However, in 1797, Washington voluntarily relinquished the presidency — and, at long last, departed public life for good.

Through violent revolution, the fight for independence, and two terms as president, George Washington had always placed the needs of the country ahead of his own. Time and time again he answered his country’s call. Washington recognized that truly great men unselfishly devote themselves to the service of causes greater than themselves.

THIS WEEK’S Gospel reading begins with two of Jesus’ disciples making an outrageous request. Anticipating that Jesus would soon inherit his earthly kingdom, James and John shamelessly requested for themselves special positions of honor.

Their request seems all-the-more outrageous when we realize that Jesus had only moments before instructed his disciples about his upcoming suffering and death: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,” Jesus confided, “and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise” (Mark 10:32-34).

This was actually Jesus’ third attempt to instruct his followers about his passion. His first proclamation ended with a call to radical self denial (Mark 8:31-34). After his second announcement, the Twelve openly debated which of them was the greatest. This prompted Jesus to declare, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:30-35).

And now, once again, Jesus tries to help his disciples understand that his days are numbered. And once again, they just don’t get it. James and John make their request for strategic positions and then the others get mad — because James and John had “beaten them to the punch!”

JESUS, realizing that their base motives threatened the very existence of the church, immediately pulled the Twelve aside and laid down the law: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them. . . . But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

First-century Jews knew all-too-well how their Roman occupiers “lorded it over” them. The most common coin of the day, the denarius, portrayed Emperor Tiberius as the semi-divine son of god; another depicted the emperor with the inscription, “He who deserves adoration.” Surely the disciples didn’t want the Kingdom of God to resemble the tyranny of their Roman occupiers!

No, pining for power and prestige makes no sense in the church. Jesus is our example par excellence. “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In the words of St. Paul, “Christ Jesus . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8).

JAMES AND John certainly didn’t know what they were asking. They thought theirs was the time for crowns and rewards, privileged seats and heavenly honors. How wrong they were! Little did they realize that their work had only just begun.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington’s army was hungry and unpaid — and was threatening a rebellion. To calm them, Washington began to read a letter, but found he was having trouble deciphering it.

Putting on his spectacles, which he had never worn in public, Washington apologized, “You’ll forgive me, not only have I grown gray in the service of my country, but I find that I am growing blind as well.”

According to eyewitnesses, this reminder of Washington’s personal
sacrifice caused his soldiers to break out in tears of shame. They realized
that the self-sacrifice required to build a new nation had only just begun.

And our work has only just begun. Hard work, struggle, sweat, spiritual battle, and sacrifice are still necessary as we evangelize, catechize and propagate the Kingdom of God. The prerequisite for greatness remains the same: “Humble yourself and be the slave of all.”

Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline.

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