Drinking the Chalice of Greatness, 2nd Wednesday of Lent, March 15, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent
March 15, 2017
Jer 18:18-20, Ps 31, Mt 20:17-28


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in today’s homily: 

  • Today Jesus builds on the message of conversion we pondered yesterday. Yesterday Jesus told us, “The greatest among you must be your servant.” The readings stressed that it wasn’t enough merely to stop committing sins and crimes, to “cease doing evil” but we needed to share God’s “ambition,” to “make justice [our] aim,” to “learn to do good” and to depend on his mercy. And we can really only begin to do good when we’re humble enough, having been served by the Lord in his mercy, to pay it forward and serve others. We can only be great and exalted in God’s kingdom when we lower ourselves with Jesus to wash others’ feet, to love them, to give our lives to and for them.
  • For this to happen, our ambitions need to be converted. God doesn’t seek to eliminate all ambition. He wants us to be desirous of great things, but he does want to revolutionize what great things we seek. There’s a pacific ocean between ambition for self-aggrandizement, which is the typical ambition in the world, and ambition for souls, between seeking to glorify one’s name and establish one’s Kingdom versus trying to hallow God’s name and enter and establish his kingdom. Today in the readings Jesus seeks to transform make holy the ambition not just of James and John and their mother, not just of the apostles, but all of us. And in the process, he teaches us an important lesson about the way he purifies us of false ambition so that we may be more like him.
  • There’s a poignant contrast St. Matthew presents in today’s Gospel. As soon as Jesus gives the third prediction of his upcoming betrayal, condemnation, mockery, scourging and crucifixion, rather than consoling him, the apostles and their family members show their spiritually worldly ambitions. In fact, every time Jesus predicted his passion it seemed to bring out the worst, rather than the best, in his followers. We remember the first time he announced it, Peter, thinking not as God does but as human beings do and playing the part of Satan, “rebuked” him, saying “no such thing should ever happen to you.” The second time Jesus gave the same prediction and everyone just remained silent, thinking about their own situation, and then speaking along the way about the one who would be the greatest. It would be as if you told your best friends that you had just been informed by your doctor that you had two weeks to live and your friends, instead of consoling you and showing concern, began in your his presence to deny the diagnosis or to remain silent thinking about how that will affect them. But it gets worse today. As soon as he says the words about his crucifixion, the mother of James and John approached Jesus with her sons — because they were too afraid to ask on their own it seems; how lame is that! — and asked that they sit on his right and his left as his two chief advisors when he entered into what they believed would be his earthly kingdom. Little did she know that those thrones would be occupied by two thieves on Calvary. When the other ten apostles heard about this, St. Matthew recalls, “they became indignant at the two brothers,” not of course because they found such behavior contrary to genuine love rather than using of Jesus but because they likewise coveted those two seats.
  • Jesus took advantage of the ugliness of the raw earthly ambition to instruct them about the holy ambition he wants them to have. He asked, “Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” That chalice was the cup Jesus would pray that the Father take away from him in the Garden, the cup of suffering announcement by the prophets. He was asking whether they could share in his suffering and the zeal that led him to suffer for others’ salvation. He was inviting them to share his own desires and enter truly into his kingdom. Jesus often described greatness in the Gospel, the type of greatness he wanted. Jesus wants us to be great in faith, praising the Syro-Phoenician mother and the Roman Centurion for their great faith and longed that all in Israel would emulate it. Jesus wants us to be great in living by his truths and passing them on to others. “Whoever keeps these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called great in the Kingdom of heaven,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus wants us to be great in humility. In response to the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?,” Jesus called a child over and said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” And as we see today, he wants us to be ambitious in our total imitation of his self-sacrificial love. “Whoever would be first among you must be the servant of all,” he said. “For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus wants us to receive his mercy to become truly great in all four of these ways so that we can help others grow in faith, grow in humble acceptance of God’s action, grow in the hunger to pass on the faith to others, and grow in the desire to give our life to ransom others from slavery and death.
  • Today Jesus asks James and John whether they can drink the chalice he was about to drink, whether they could drink his mercy to overflowing, so that they would be able to serve others according to the standards of the kingdom instead of the world. John and James replied, “We can!,” and Jesus told them they would. He then made a larger point about the ambition he wanted them and us to have, contrasting Jesus’ ambition with those of worldly kinds and sycophantic courtiers: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Ambition for greatness in Jesus’ kingdom will be shown not by positions of authority but by practices of service and ultimately by giving our whole life to rescue others from slavery to sin and death. Today, Jesus asks all of us whether we’re willing to drink that chalice.
  • Such a request, we have to admit, goes against our hopes and plans for a comfy life. Fair enough. God didn’t create us with a desire to suffer, but after the fall our love for others would be shown by our capacity to suffer and die for them, since, as Jesus would say during the Last Supper, no one has greater love than to die for others. It was a struggle likewise for the Prophet Jeremiah. After recounting to the Lord how others were contriving plots against him to destroy him, he turned to God and complained, “Must good be repaid with evil that they should dig a pit to take my life? Remember that I stood before you to speak in their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them.” He had done good and was suffering as a result and that fundamental unfairness scandalized him. He did not realize at that point because of his youth that the suffering he would eventually willingly endure, that loving service of those who were plotting to kill him, that humility and enslavement to God’s saving will, would lead to his eternal exaltation. He was able to drink the chalice of suffering in anticipation of Jesus’ drinking it to the dregs, but he at first shied away. The Lord allowed him that suffering for his own purification. The Lord often treats us in a similar way. When we serve others, we may not be thanked or appreciated. Others may in fact pay attention to our words not because they’re God’s words but to catch us in our speech. They may allow us to serve them just to catch us in a mistake. Regardless, God permits this because out of it he wants to help us conform our life into a ransom for others, like and together with Jesus’ self-giving. This is a hard teaching, but it is part of the good news, and when we unite our occasionally unrequited love, our unappreciated service, to him, he is in fact able to make it a ransom to save many.
  • Jeremiah’s conversion is a sign of hope for our own. Like him, we, too, can resist the Lenten call that Jesus forcefully makes for us to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross — of suffering and self-death! — and follow him all the way up the Way of the Cross to Calvary and glory. That cross for us, accordingly to worldly standards, often takes the form of humiliation and pain, but it’s through the willingness to suffer anything and everything to serve God and help him save others that we grow to be conformed to Christ in everything. That needs to be every Christian’s deepest ambition, to receive God’s mercy and make that mercy for others the greatest desire of our life. Jesus wants us all to be great in his kingdom and today he teaches us how. As we prepare to become one with him in Holy Communion, as we prepare to drink from the chalice of his Precious Blood, let us ask him to conform ourselves to his merciful ambitions for us so that we may imitate him in becoming the servant of the rest and give our lives, with His, as a ransom for as many as we can. He asks us today, “Can you drink this chalice?” And through the intercession of SS. James and John, may we reply, and mean, “Yes we can!”

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 Jer 18:18-20

The people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem said,
“Come, let us contrive a plot against Jeremiah.
It will not mean the loss of instruction from the priests,
nor of counsel from the wise, nor of messages from the prophets.
And so, let us destroy him by his own tongue;
let us carefully note his every word.”
Heed me, O LORD,
and listen to what my adversaries say.
Must good be repaid with evil
that they should dig a pit to take my life?
Remember that I stood before you
to speak in their behalf,
to turn away your wrath from them.

Responsorial Psalm PS 31:5-6, 14, 15-16

R. (17b) Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.
You will free me from the snare they set for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me, O LORD, O faithful God.
R. Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.
I hear the whispers of the crowd, that frighten me from every side,
as they consult together against me, plotting to take my life.
R. Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.
But my trust is in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
In your hands is my destiny; rescue me
from the clutches of my enemies and my persecutors.
R. Save me, O Lord, in your kindness.

Verse Before the Gospel Jn 8:12

I am the light of the world, says the Lord;
whoever follows me will have the light of life.

Gospel Mt 20:17-28

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem,
he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves,
and said to them on the way,
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests
and the scribes,
and they will condemn him to death,
and hand him over to the Gentiles
to be mocked and scourged and crucified,
and he will be raised on the third day.”
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons
and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.
He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She answered him,
“Command that these two sons of mine sit,
one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”
Jesus said in reply,
“You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”
They said to him, “We can.”
He replied,
“My chalice you will indeed drink,
but to sit at my right and at my left,
this is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard this,
they became indignant at the two brothers.
But Jesus summoned them and said,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”