James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus asking for a favor: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus says to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink…?” They respond, “We can!” Jesus answers them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink… but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Jesus told James and John, “You do not know what you are asking,” but how well do we understand what Jesus is saying here? What was the cup that Jesus would drink? How would Jesus be enthroned in glory? And who got those places at his right and his left? The answers are found in the gospel accounts of the Passion.
Jesus, the night before he died, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” And again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Earlier that same evening, at the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. … Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” So when is the next time we see Jesus drink “the fruit of the vine”? All four gospels record that Jesus was given wine on his Cross. In his suffering, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Someone soaked a sponge in a vessel filled with sour wine and put it up to his mouth. Once Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished,” and then he died.
Alongside the cross of Jesus a pair of guilty criminals were also crucified; one on his right and the other on his left. Both of them had mocked Jesus at first, but then one of them repented. Acknowledging Christ’s innocence and lordship, he asked: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
So what is the cup which Jesus drank? His cup is a cup of suffering. When and where was Jesus first enthroned in the kingdom of God? He is enthroned in glory upon his Cross. And who received the places at his right and left? Those places close to Jesus went first to two crucified criminals. Indeed, James and John in today’s gospel did not know what they were asking. Yet these apostles would go on to be glorified through their own shares in Christ’s sufferings: including martyrdom for St. James and exile for St. John “the Beloved Disciple.”
Many people struggle to reconcile the reality of suffering with the power and love of God. Some Christians even mistakenly preach a “Prosperity Gospel,” saying that if you believe in God and love him, he will bless you so that bad things never happen to you. But this view is incomplete. There are true blessings which flow from following Jesus Christ and his Gospel, but the worldview of the “Prosperity Gospel” sets believers up for a fall. When painful hardship or tragedy eventually come, those Christians will either blame themselves for not having had enough faith or blame God for seeming to fail them. This latter group wonders, “If God is not dependable, why should I keep faith in him?” And then, feeling wounded, confused, and abandoned, they abandon God.
We do not completely understand the mystery of evils in our world; why a devastating earthquake happens to some particular city, why a particular healthy adult gets cancer, or why a particular young person perishes in a car wreck. We do know that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, that his plans see farther than our sight. And we know that God, who is the highest good, would not permit evils to exist unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil. In Jesus Christ we see that God intimately knows and deeply cares about all the things we suffer. So what is the Lord up to?
It’s no coincidence that all four gospels mention how Jesus is crucified between two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left, with one who repents and one who appears not to repent. All of humanity is similarly suffering as a result of our original or personal sin. We too begin as guilty rebels condemned. But on the Cross, Jesus Christ the Son of God, though divine and innocent, joins us in our suffering.
The Letter to the Hebrews observes that in him “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way…” This divine plan for Christ to be a suffering servant was foretold through the Prophet Isaiah centuries before: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin… the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. …Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.”
This Good Shepherd intimately understands the sufferings of the flock. He comes down from his high mountain into our dark valley and calls us to himself. We can respond to him with faith, acknowledging his goodness and lordship as sheep on his right. Or we can remain as faithless goats on his left, unrepentant for our sins and rejecting Christ forever. Realize that Jesus Christ desires not merely to forgive our sins, but that you and I would become children of God the Father just like himself.
Why do evils and sufferings continue to afflict those who follow Christ? As I said before, we do not know the answer to every painful question. (I believe we will understand God’s plan and purposes far better in heaven when he ‘wipes away every tear from our eyes.’) But we do know that Jesus Christ wants us to share in his own greatness and glory.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tries to help his disciples see that the path to true greatness and glory are not what they imagine. “Those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles,” Jesus notes, “lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. 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. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In our loving service and in our faithful suffering, we become more like Jesus. With Jesus, our sacrifices and sufferings are redemptive, helping to make us saints while helping to save the world. This is the precious, challenging, saving cup our Lord offers us. But can we drink it? With the grace and love of Jesus Christ strengthening us, we can!
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