Readings: Jeremiah 18:18-20; Psalm 31; Matthew 20:17-28
The focus of the Scripture readings at Mass begins to move around a bit more. For the first two weeks of Lent we hear lots about the call to conversion, the works of penance, and the need for moral and spiritual renewal. Of course Christ is often spoken about also, as a teacher of moral and spiritual living, and as an example for us to imitate.
But now, at first tentatively and later more decisively, the focus shifts away from ourselves, and what we can or should be doing, and settles finally on Jesus himself, on his journey to Jerusalem, on the intimations of his passion, finally on his suffering and death, coming to a climax on Good Friday. The focus is, more and more, simply on Jesus as we are invited to meditate on who he is and on the significance of his suffering and death. To help us with this meditation the Church's liturgy presents us with a series of figures from the First Testament whose innocent suffering has become a type or prefigurement of the suffering of Jesus.
Today, for example, we are presented with Jeremiah, one of the prophets whose life was threatened in Jerusalem, and who suffered persecution even if he was not actually killed. We will be reminded later in Lent of Joseph, sold into slavery, of the virtuous man who provokes the envy and anger of the unwise, of Jeremiah again, thrown into a cistern, of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three young men cast into a fiery furnace, and of Susanna, a young woman unjustly accused whose trial anticipates that of Jesus.
In this context the request of the mother of James and John is all the more dissonant. She strikes the wrong note completely. She opens her mouth and puts her foot in it. In Mark's gospel it is the apostles themselves who are out of touch with what Jesus is saying; Matthew spares their blushes by blaming their mother!
Words that clash. The persecutors of Jeremiah want to hang him with his own words. Nothing will be lost to us by shutting this guy up, they say, we will still have instruction, counsel, prophetic words. Yes, but not the full and authentic word of the Lord that is coming to them now through Jeremiah. He appeals to his service in words, speaking to God whom he had earlier addressed on behalf of the people who are now persecuting him.
Jesus stands in that tradition of prophets persecuted in Jerusalem. That is now clearly his destination, the capital, the centre of political power, the focus of religious faith. James and John, or their mother, like the sound of that, and ask for good places in the kingdom that is coming. But it is a kingdom in reverse, where the chalice to be drunk is the chalice of suffering, where the greatest is the servant of all, where the slave is the first of all, and where the one who gives his life as a ransom for many is the one who understands the heart of God most deeply. 'Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit'.