Homily: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B
Have any of you ever noticed that it takes different levels of concentration and focus to drive in the city versus driving on the highway? For example, if you’ve taken a trip to another city—one that you’re not familiar with—and it’s time to leave and return home, you have to put a lot of focus and attention on making sure that you are taking the right turns so that you can get on the correct highway that will take you home. If it’s a larger city with a lot of traffic you have to be even more focused so that you don’t miss the turn to enter the highway. On the highway, however, you don’t need to pay as much attention. You know that if you keep going the way that you are going that you’ll get there. This is where our minds start to drift a little and we focus less on where we are going and how we are getting there and more on whatever else our minds try to focus on.
I myself always tend to focus on other cars. My car is a perfectly good car, but I like cars and I like to think about owning other cars, so most of the time I’m watching other cars go by and I’m thinking about whether or not I’d want to own one of them. Even when I’m on my way to do something important, my focus drifts away from that important thing and I pay attention to the cars passing by.
Jesus’ apostles, it seems, suffered from the same condition. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus and his disciples are on a journey from Galilee towards Jerusalem. This was no short trip, but the way was well known to them. Thus, they were each subject to the temptation to enter into “cruise mode” where their minds could drift from the task for which they had set out on their journey and focus on other things.
This particular trip to Jerusalem would be a “one-way” trip for Jesus. After arriving, he would not leave Jerusalem again before being crucified. So aware of this was Jesus that he even predicted it to his disciples while they were on the journey. In Mark’s Gospel, it would be the third time that Jesus told his disciples that he would have to suffer and die at the hands of the chief priests and the scribes. Nonetheless, the temptation to enter “cruise mode” was too strong for the Apostles and their focus drifts away from Jesus’ prediction and onto things.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee and two of Jesus’ first disciples, had allowed themselves to think about the reward they would be receiving as Jesus’ disciples. Remember in last week’s Gospel reading, as Jesus and his disciples were setting out on this journey, Jesus told his disciples that those who had given up everything to follow him would receive a hundred times more. Thus, as their minds drifted during their journey, James and John decided to see if they could get a specific commitment from Jesus on what that reward might look like.
They asked to be seated at the right and the left of Jesus when he was seated on his royal throne. The seats to the right and the left of the king were the two most powerful seats in any kingdom and those who sat in those seats would have great influence over the king. It would be hard to find fault in their request given what Jesus just said about the reward that they would receive and that elsewhere he had taught them that if they “ask, they will receive” and that if they “knock, the door will be opened to them.” It’s not as if they had strayed from the mission—that is, the purpose for their journey—rather, they let their focus drift away from it.
This is a risk that all of us can fall into, right? When we begin to follow Jesus seriously it’s kind of like trying to find our way out of the town that we are unfamiliar with. We’re paying close attention to what we are doing and we are trying to follow each direction as precisely as we can. We are focused on following him because we know that, if we don’t, we may find ourselves lost and, perhaps, even in danger. After that initial intensity, however, we make it out onto the highway and begin to cruise. We’re still heading towards our destination and we haven’t forgotten the purpose for our journey, but we don’t have to pay as close attention as we did initially and so our minds begin to drift. Perhaps we even begin to think about how we are going to be rewarded for our faithful discipleship. Like James and John, we haven’t strayed from the mission—we’re still on the road, travelling to our destination—but we’ve lost focus on the destination and have begun to focus on ourselves.
Jesus, as he did with his Apostles that day, steers us clear of all of this in order to refocus us on our destination. In the Gospel, when James and John ask for positions of power, Jesus instructs them to stop thinking in those terms. Instead, he tells them to focus on the mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. “Serve one another in serving the mission,” he says, “and the reward will take care of itself. This is the example that I am giving you.” Jesus knew the reward that awaited him and so he knew that there was no need for him to spend time thinking about it. Thus, he could remain focused on the mission so that he might fulfill it completely.
Perhaps we don’t have the same perfect focus as Jesus and perhaps we’ve allowed our minds and hearts to drift from their focus on our mission and destination. This should not lead us into despair, however, because, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “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, yet without sin.” Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses and so we can come to him confidently, asking for help when we’ve lost our focus.
In many ways, this is what we do when we gather here each week. Notice that we do not come here to receive accolades or rewards, but rather to be refreshed and re-commissioned. By engaging in this act of worship, we take the focus off of ourselves and place it back on Jesus and the mission that he has given us. The Word that is proclaimed to us instructs us and inspires us, while the Sacrament that we receive strengthens us and reminds us that the promised reward is already ours. Thus refreshed and strengthened we can continue on the journey with the same focus and intensity that we had when we first took our discipleship seriously.
My brothers and sisters, our world needs active apostles, not disciples in “cruise mode”. May our participation in this Eucharist awaken us to the apostolate that Jesus has given us, so that the kingdom of God may be more fully realized among us.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – October 18th, 2015