If you have ever met an English person who believes in reincarnation, then you have probably met a bore or a fantasist. It is strange how people who believe in reincarnation almost always believe that they were something great in their past life. They were at the court of Marie Antoinette or commanders in Pharoah’s army. They were never medieval peasants walking behind a horse-drawn plough, or servants emptying bed-pans in a Victorian country house.
It says to me that this desire to be someone special is deep-rooted in us. So when James and John approached Jesus trying to wheedle promotion out of him, they were simply acting out the kind of fantasy that all of us indulge in from time to time. Imagine being on a throne! Imagine all that power and prestige. Think, however, of how Jesus must have felt at that moment. I wonder if he had his head in his hands and was tempted to despair. These were men who had walked alongside him, who had heard him teach about God’s love for us all. They had listened as Jesus made his call for repentance and inspired his listeners to be like yeast, salt, light, making the world a better place out of humble love for others. Yet after they still thought of the kingdom as a chance to grab power and wealth and lord it over others (Mk 10.35-45).
The reply that Jesus makes is sobering. In effect, he tells them that they will drink a cup of suffering and pass through a baptism of fire. And as if that is not enough he tells them that they need to follow him in being the servant of all. It reminds me of one of the most solemn events of our Christian calendar, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, when we remember Christ washing the feet of his disciples. We remember too that he prayed in Gethsemane that this cup might pass from him, but in the event he had to embrace suffering and pass through death on the cross, so that we might live.
Although he mentions being like a slave, I doubt that Jesus is calling us to mindless service of others. Nor is he saying that suffering is good. Rather, he is calling us to live in such a way that we give life to others. This is servant ministry. It’s more, much more than generosity or kindness. It’s a call to combat our self-centredness and to pare down our egos. It asks us to be generous and creative in looking for the good of others. It challenges us to be prepared to stand for what is right and just. It inverts the world’s way of asking for something back in terms of rewards or recognition. It has to be, though, for the good of others, which is why Jesus speaks of himself as a ransom. He will be held captive so that others may be set free. He will give his life so that others may have life.
Perhaps it sounds romantic, but it runs contrary to the wisdom of our age, which prizes fulfilment seen in narrow terms. Consider what parents want for their children. A glittering career. Success. If instead their children opt for a life of service of humanity, if they turn away from the chance of riches and comfort and ease, the world will say: ‘What a waste.’ Yet Christ’s words echo in our ears: ‘The Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.