Gospel & Homily
As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem,
he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves,
and said to them on the way,
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests
and the scribes,
and they will condemn him to death,
and hand him over to the Gentiles
to be mocked and scourged and crucified,
and he will be raised on the third day.”
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons
and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.
He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She answered him,
“Command that these two sons of mine sit,
one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”
Jesus said in reply,
“You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”
They said to him, “We can.”
“My chalice you will indeed drink,
but to sit at my right and at my left,
this is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard this,
they became indignant at the two brothers.
But Jesus summoned them and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jerusalem, My Destiny Transcript
Our gospel today begins with two references where Jesus says, “We are going up to Jerusalem. We are going up to Jerusalem.” It reminds me of the lyrics of a song by a famous Catholic American composer, Rory Cooney [Rory was at the Mass when Fr. Michael gave this homily]. Perhaps some of you have heard of him and his song, “Jerusalem, My Destiny.”
“I have fixed my eyes on your hills, Jerusalem my destiny. Though I cannot see the end for me, I cannot turn away. We have set our hearts for the way; the journey is our destiny. Let no one walk alone.”
Jesus knows where he’s headed. He set his eyes on the prize, which is this deep union with God. He calls all of us into this union with him, and that’s a pathway up to Jerusalem. Jesus knows, and he says very clearly in one of his predictions of his passion, ‘We’re going up to Jerusalem guys and there I’m going to be turned over by the leaders of our church institution, by our synagogue leaders, handed into the hands of Gentiles, I’m going to be crucified, but I will rise again.’
It’s a prophecy of suffering and a prophecy of glory, but of course that reference shoots right over the heads of the Apostles and it’s followed immediately by this scene of the mother of James and John—the mother of the sons of Zebedee—coming up and saying, ‘Jesus, I got a little favor I’d like you to do for my sons. My sons. My only sons. Is this too much for a mother to ask?’ Jesus says, ‘What have you got in mind?’ ‘Well just a little thing Jesus, that they sit on your right hand and your left when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus says, ‘You have no idea what you’re asking.’
It reminded me of a story in the press that has received a lot of attention recently of “Snowplow parents.” It used to be “Helicopter parents”—helicopter parents who would fly in just to check on their kids, their adult kids. Now “Snowplow parents” are those who plow everything out of the way of their children to prepare a wonderful life for their children, to make it as easy as possible for them to succeed. And of course that’s led to a horrendous scandal; the college admissions scandal of elite schools acknowledging that their admission officers had been bribed by wealthy individuals trying to ensure that their children would be admitted to these elite schools.
I read recently about a pole in USA today, by the time kids are old enough for college and way beyond, the poll indicated that 76% of American parents remind their adult children of deadlines they need to meet including their schoolwork. This is very appropriate when they’re in grade school, perhaps necessary when they’re in high school, but when they’re in college? 74% made appointments for their adult children including doctors appointments. 15% of parents with children in college texted or called their children to wake them up in the morning so they would not sleep through a class or a test. Of course I’m sure these parents are doing this—perhaps this includes some of you—with the best of intentions, knowing the weakness of their children and wanting to prepare only the best for them.
Let me give you a little example of what I have in mind here. Perhaps you been following the Seeds of Hope stories, the daily Lenten stories. One of those stories that I think is particularly applicable here is a story that you may have seen, or read in those little booklets about mother giraffes. When a mother giraffe gives birth she’s standing up and she drops her baby several feet onto the ground, the baby bounces on the ground and the mother giraffe then turns and kicks the baby so that it turns over and its feet are under it. Then the mother giraffe does something rather surprising, she takes her long leg and she kicks the baby and sends the baby sprawling, rolling over itself. And then the mother giraffe kicks the baby again, and again the baby goes sprawling until the baby gets the idea, ‘Oh, I gotta stand up.’ And then as soon as the baby stands up, the mother giraffe kicks the legs out from under the baby and knocks it down sprawling. The baby stands up again and again the mother giraffe kicks the baby, repeating what seems from the outside to be a cruel ritual, but instinctively the mother giraffe knows that a baby giraffe that cannot stand and run will soon become a tasty morsel for a predator. In the animal kingdom, the animals know that the best way to prepare their children for life is by strengthening them not weakening them.
It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Philip Brooks. He was a chaplain at Harvard University. He is most famous for writing the lyrics of the song, “O Little town of Bethlehem”. He’s been quoted by President Kennedy and Bruce Lee. His quote: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger people. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the working of your life will be no miracle, but you will be the miracle.”
We all want what’s best for our loved ones. That’s certainly the example of the mother of Zebedee isn’t it, coming to Jesus and saying, ‘I want you to do this favor,’ but Jesus says, ‘There’s something more important than snowplowing the way to power and privilege for our loved ones and that’s praying that in the adversities and the difficulties and the struggles of life we grow stronger not weaker.’
Another example—one of my favorite stories from Seeds of Hope—is as a man is walking along and he sees a cocoon, he picks up the cocoon and this moth is just beginning to emerge from the cocoon but it’s struggling. The moth can’t make it out of the cocoon. It seems like an endless process, the little moth is struggling, trying to get out of the cocoon and can’t get out. So what does the man do? He’s resourceful, he as a Swiss Army knife, he takes it out, he opens it to the scissors, takes the end of the cocoon and snips it off and the moth easily emerges from the cocoon. The man feels good about himself. ‘I’ve just helped this poor moth.’ Well he comes back several hours later and there is the moth with these shriveled wings crawling around the ground. In his misguided wisdom, he had crippled the moth for life because what he didn’t realize is in that struggle—that necessary struggle—the moth or the butterfly pushes against the cocoon and a chemical is released into their wings that allows them to fly. Without that necessary struggle, the moth was crippled for life.
We all want what’s best for our loved ones and God is no exception. God is the ultimate parent and God knows that the pathway to strength is through the cross. Jerusalem is indeed not just Jesus’s destiny, it’s the destiny for every one of us. Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger people. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks then the working of your life will be no miracle but you will be the miracle. That’s God’s desire for each one of us .
A friend of mine has terrible asthma. I’ve been praying for her for many, many years that the Lord in his wisdom and his mercy would heal her of this asthma but that has not been the case. I called her on the phone recently and she had an asthma attack as she picked up the phone and could hardly breathe. As we continued the conversation, I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to ask her: “We’ve been praying for healing for your asthma for all these years and the Lord has not answered that prayer, so the Lord must have something else in mind. What have you learned from your asthma?” And she said, “I think without the asthma, I would’ve lost my soul because I recognized as a young woman I was ambitious, I was vain, I was proud, I was self-centered. The asthma has forced me to turn to God, day after day, to beg for his grace, to beg for his mercy.” She said, “Without the asthma I might be alive and strong,” but she said, “I would fear for my soul.”
I wept when I heard her say that. From God’s perspective, God does not desire to break us. God is not some maniacal master in the sky looking and taking delight in the sufferings we endure but God is this ultimate parent who wants to strengthen us so that we grow in virtue; so that we’re able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
So Jesus turns to James and John and says, “Can you drink of the cup of which I will drink?” And they say, “We can.” Then Jesus says, “Okay of the cup that I drink, you will drink.” And that prophecy is fulfilled. James becomes the first martyr among the Twelve. John becomes the only one of the Twelve—besides Judas who took his own life—the only one of the Eleven not to die a martyr’s death; exiled on the island of Patmos. [James and John were] the first among the Twelve to die and the last among the Twelve to die. Both of them are honored today as great Saints. The sufferings of their lives transformed them. That’s God’s desire for us. He’s created us to become his Saints.
A popular book that Matthew Kelly has penned is “The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity.” What’s that biggest lie? It is that we are not called to holiness. Over 50 years ago, in the second Vatican Council, the church said, ‘We are all called to holiness. We are all called to become Saints.’ And part of the scandal of the American Catholic Church, part of the scandal of the clergy sex abuse crisis that has rocked the world Catholic Church, is an invitation to say the church is not the Cardinals, the church is not the priests, the church is us.
The sins and the weaknesses of our leadership have been dramatically exposed and some in the midst of that choose to say, ‘Okay I’m over. I’m done with this Catholic Church. The bishops have disappointed me one more time. The Pope has disappointed me one more time. Father so-and-so has disappointed me one more time. I’m outta here I don’t want anything to do with it.’
That’s an understandable response but I think there’s a better response. The better response is to say, ‘The church is. We are the church. The church is not the bishops. The church is not the priests. The church is us the people of God.’ That’s the call of the second Vatican Council and we are called to holiness and how do we grow into holiness except by picking up our cross and following Jesus. “I have fixed my eyes on your hills. Jerusalem my destiny. Though I cannot see the end for me, I cannot turn away. We have set our hearts for the way. This journey is our destiny. Let no one walk alone, the journey makes us one.”
The journey calls us to be the people of God. The journey calls us to become his saints, to pick up our cross and follow him.