In the 1990’s I was pastor of a large parish with a parochial school. At the beginning of one academic year a group of parents of parochial school students suggested that the parish host an annual Fall Festival to benefit the school.
That group of parents had in mind a large midway area with carnival rides and a large number of booths offering food and games. They were convinced that a Fall Festival could provide a substantial amount of funding for the school. I did my very best to dissuade them from pursuing the idea.
I grew up in a parish that has a very large, and very successful, Spring Carnival. It makes a large donation to the parish school every year. It is also all-consuming. The success of the Spring Carnival depends not only on support from school families, but from everyone in the parish. It is a massive project that requires nearly year-round activity.
When that group of parents proposed a Fall Festival I responded to them with the same incredulity with which Jesus responded to the request from James and John in today’s Gospel reading. They asked Jesus, “Give us the places of honor in your glory, one of us sitting on your right side and the other on your left.” (Mark 10:37) He was quite certain that they had no understanding of what they were asking. He asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” (Mark 10:38)
That group of parents was fully committed to having a successful Fall Festival. As it happens, success requires more than commitment. Our first Fall Festival coincided with a gigantic tropical storm that sat stationary in the Gulf of Mexico, and flooded the parish grounds with massive amounts of rain. Our first Fall Festival lost a huge amount of money. The second year’s Festival broke even; the third year’s Festival lost only a little money. Having earned the distinction of being the only parish in the history of the Catholic Church to lose money consistently on a school fund-raiser, we didn’t try a fourth time.
James and John were fully committed to following Jesus. They were so enthusiastic that they imagined themselves attached to Jesus and his reform movement permanently. Although their desire for places of honor in Jesus’ Reign (Mark 10:37), might look like ambitious self-promotion, it was a genuine statement of loyalty to Jesus and his cause. Unfortunately for the two brothers, they were clueless about the cost of discipleship.
Jesus used a metaphor common at the time to describe the cost of being his disciple. He asked the brothers, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” (Mark 10:38) At family meals, in Jesus’ culture, the head of the household poured wine into the cups of those gathered at the table. One accepted what one was given; to complain about one’s cup was considered rude and inappreciative. The cup of wine poured at a meal became a metaphor for one’s lot in life: no one chooses the circumstances of their birth – one’s lot in life is simply given.
Using a meal’s cup of wine as a metaphor, Jesus asked James and John, ‘Will you accept the same lot in life that has been assigned to me?’ He was asking if they were prepared to be rejected, abandoned, shamed and executed in the most repulsive manner imaginable. (Mark 10:34) Their enthusiastic positive response belied their lack of awareness of who Jesus really was.
Jesus’ mission was not to suggest a possible way to know and love God. Rather, Jesus was sent to reveal the only way that a person might come to know and love God. Jesus’ teaching isn’t merely helpful suggestions about how to live; it is instruction about the only way to live. To be a follower of Jesus isn’t one activity, among many, to which we can give our attention. To be a follower of Jesus requires that we give all of our attention, energies and loyalty to the work of imitating him.
Being a disciple of Jesus is more than wishing to be so. It is more than seeing some potential benefit in his words. It is more than a passive assent to his wise teaching.
A friend of mine is fond of describing discipleship in terms of the bacon and eggs that make a good breakfast: the chicken has to make a real commitment, but the pig has to make the ultimate sacrifice. Discipleship is no mere commitment.
None of us would be satisfied with only a verbal commitment of mercy and love from God; we are truly satisfied only by the actual experience of being loved by God. We owe God the same sacrifice that God makes for our sake – not a token offering, but the gift of ourselves.