Opening the Word: Dispossessing power

As Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the king. It’s good to have absolute power. It’s good to know that every eye in the room is attending to your presence, waiting to exchange but a single word with you.

At least, we think it’s good. James and John think it’s good.

And that’s the problem. Despite Jesus’ preaching to his disciples about the need for total dispossession, James and John approach Jesus and ask him for power: “‘Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left’” (Mk 10:37).

They want to be raised up above all the other disciples. Let us be seen as worthy ambassadors of your kingship. Let one of us replace you when the time is right.

Jesus does not dismiss their naked power grab. He teaches them, asking them whether they are ready to receive the fullness of what God has in store for the Son of Man.

For this is the cup that Jesus must drink: “By making his life as a reparation offering, he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days, and the Lord’s will shall be accomplished through him” (Is 53:10).

The Son of Man will suffer. The Son of Man will take upon himself the wounds of the world, the sins of men and women. There will be no entourage of power. To sit at the right and left of the suffering servant, Jesus Christ, means to be greeted by the hatred of the world.

Welcome to the kingdom of God!

James and John still don’t get it, proclaiming once more that they want this cup. Jesus prophesizes that they will drink from this cup, they will suffer, but the honor of proximity to the Son is not his to give — solely the Father gives it.

The rest of the disciples don’t get it. They overhear James and John’s not-so-subtle grasping for power, and they’re mad. What about us? Why don’t we get to sit at the right hand of you, the powerful one, the king of heaven and earth?

Jesus teaches the apostles this day what it means to lead. It’s not about gathering power, climbing toward greatness. All power is measured according to the self-giving love of the suffering servant: “‘For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Mk 10:45).

In the present ecclesial crisis, there’s been a lot of talk about power. Which bishops used their power to climb to the top? How do we invite lay people to have more power in the Church?

Such questions are not unimportant. But they risk confusing the acquisition of power, of prestige, of self-importance for the kingdom of God.

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To be a leader in the Church is not about climbing to the next and better diocesan see or pastoral assignment, being seen in pictures with the pope, or participating in the right diocesan committee. It’s about love unto the end.

The refusal to dispossess power, I suspect, is at the heart of the present crisis. It’s a crisis of leadership where there was a desire to “keep power” no matter the cost.

But, even here, there is the possibility of salvation. For as we hear in Hebrews, the suffering servant, the great high priest knows our weakness. Knows our propensity to seize power. And nonetheless he intercedes for us in heaven, dispossessing even his power to judge for the foolish mercy of the kingdom of God.

After all, that’s the source of all power in the end.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.