21 Oct 2012
“When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.” (Mark 10:41) (+)
Today’s Gospel does not paint a very pretty picture of the disciples. James and John, two brothers, once described by Mark and only by Mark as “sons of thunder,” approach Jesus on the sly and ask Him for positions of honour in His coming kingdom, positions, in other words, above the other ten disciples. They even treat Jesus as a bit of dupe. “‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” they say to Him. Any parent recognizes this old ploy. It’s understandable coming out of the mouth of a five-year-old; it’s just embarrassing coming out of the mouths of the sons of thunder. But the other ten disciples don’t fare much better in this story. When they find out about James’ and John’s covert grab for power, we’re told that they are much less than forgiving.
They’re all walking in a group toward Jerusalem, and Jesus has just given them His third and final passion prediction. Jesus is going to Jerusalem with a lot on His mind, and I can imagine Him walking alone, a bit separated from the group, lost in His thoughts. And it’s easy to imagine just behind Him the ten are shunning James and John. They’re being given the cold shoulder and the silent treatment. We have Jesus by Himself, the ten in an angry, foul mood grumbling behind Him, and James and John trudging along ever farther behind absolutely embarrassed or maybe even angry at everyone else.
It’s no wonder that when Luke comes upon this story he simply leaves it out of his Gospel when he retells it. Jumps right over it like it was never there. Matthew keeps it, but to tone it down a bit he has the mother of James and John ask Jesus for their positions of power in His kingdom. I guess it’s supposed to be less awkward that these sons of thunder had to have their mom ask Jesus for them. But Mark seems to be the most honest. He’s willing to tell the story of Jesus and His disciples with faults and failures intact, and I think that’s why I enjoy Mark’s Gospel the most. It offers a sense of hope to us today because if these less than perfect disciples can eventually come through for Jesus, then we, the less than perfect disciples of today, can also come through for Jesus. The first Christians weren’t flawless pillars of faith and virtue. They had their flaws. And yet Jesus worked with them. And we’re here in the faith because they worked with Jesus.
I truly believe that we do a disservice to the church when we create a fairy tale story about the supposed pristine beginning of the faith. It’s almost like a New Testament version of the Garden of Eden. There were differences and disagreements from the start. Read the Bible on your own to see for yourselves or join us at Bible study as we read it together. This doesn’t make the church less holy to me. It makes it more real and relevant. It connects the whole story of the church with us today. We don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to be willing to be better.
And with that said, and with the story of the unforgiving ten disciples still in mind, let me tell you the story of Eric Lomax who died two weeks ago at the age of 93. He was captured by the Japanese at the age of 22 when the British army was forced to surrender at Singapore. These were the soldiers made famous in the old movie “Bridge on the River Kwai.” They were so maltreated and over worked that thousands of these POW’s died at the hands of the Japanese military. Eric Lomax was caught with a radio receiver he had made from spare parts. For this he was tortured mercilessly, and by one Japanese soldier in particular. Lomax remembered the man’s name and sought him out. He wanted to kill the man for what he had done to him. In the 1980’s he heard reports through the Japanese media that his torturer was devastated by guilt, and especially guilt over his treatment of one particular soldier. Lomax knew he was that soldier. Lomax now had his man.
40 years had passed, but the memories remained vivid. Amazingly a meeting was set-up for the two to meet each other, and Lomax came with no expectation of offering him any sympathy or forgiveness no matter how remorseful the old Japanese soldier was, but when he saw the man, when he heard his words of sorrow, he was surprised by his own reaction, his anger melted, his wishes for vengeance disappeared. He accepted the apology and he forgave the man. Lomax has said that he cannot forgive the Japanese nation for what it did to him, but he forgave the man who tortured him and who asked to be forgiven.
Maybe the lesson for us is that we don’t have to be perfect. But maybe when it comes down to an individual, to a particular person, to a one-on-one encounter, maybe we can find that surprising ability within each of us to forgive, to let go of the hatred. Eric Lomax’s story is going to be made into a Hollywood movie next year. Maybe it will convince people about our ability to be better people than we thought we could be. Maybe it will help share the gospel message of Jesus’ words about the pride of the sons of thunder and the resentment of the other ten – “‘It shall not be so among you.’” The Twelve messed-up, but they cleaned it up. That’s the honest story from the earliest church that we can still try to imitate today. They had their simple, ordinary faults, and we have ours, but they worked on being better. Christianity is not only for the perfect because then the church would be Jesus alone. It’s a faith for those who are willing to be better.
Let me close by quickly going to today’s Lesson that emphasizes that the sacred importance of Jesus’ life is that He was just like us, and that He is therefore able to “sympathize with our weaknesses … so let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” (Heb. 4:15, 16) Jesus was there for His disciples, and Jesus is here for us today. It’s not easy to live like we’re supposed to, but let us pray to Jesus to help us be better at it every day. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo