When we go looking into today's Gospel from Matt. 20 for a sermon, we are confronted by an embarrassment of riches. Here is a story of two disciples, with their mother in tow, asking for special privilege and status in the kingdom Jesus was soon to inaugurate. The request might not be as presumptuous as it appears. There are clues which suggest that the mother of James and John was a sister of the Blessed Mother and therefore Jesus' aunt. That would make James and John the cousins of Jesus. Family ties were important in that age and the request would not seem out of order to them.
But here are some of the issues which emerge in the passage. First, the sinful desire for rank and power in God's kingdom That is hardly a thing of the past. Ambition for office and influence plagues the Church in every place and time, at every level from parish to diocese to province and even to the ends of the earth. Whereas Matthew and Mark tell this story, Luke does not. Instead he told a more shocking incident in which the Twelve, gathered in the Upper Room on the night of the betrayal, only hours before the crucifixion itself, squabble and quarrel over "who should be the greatest."
Second, the timing of the incident shows the shallowness and insensitivity of Christians to the way of the cross which Jesus has taken. Our reading begins at verse 20. This follows the third great prediction of the passion, in which Jesus had said, "and they shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify, and the third day he shall rise again."
Do we only hear the final part of that prophecy? The happy indifference to our Lord's agony for us probably explains our preference for a "beautiful" and "glorious" cross to the wooden crucifix which confronts us with His pain. But the incident in today's Gospel reading is so embarrassing (to James and John and to us well) that we know it must have really happened. Anyone who invented such a tale would be guilty of slander.
Finally we must notice the gentleness of our Lord's rebuke, which is hardly a rebuke at all. He reminds them "Ye shall indeed drink of my cup and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with." As Paul tell us in Romans 6, all who are "baptized into Jesus Christ are truly baptized into his death." The mother, who seems so opportunistic, was one of the women who gathered at the foot of the cross to watch Jesus die. James was the first of the twelve apostles to die as a martyr for the faith. John was the "first to believe" the good news of Jesus' resurrection, lived to a great old age and had a vision of "new heavens and new earth" while enduring the existence of a penal colony. They were not wrong when they said, "We are able." LKW
During this portion of Trinity Season we have a series of readings from Paul's greatest work, his Letter to the Church in Rome. Before commenting on today's portion, it is necessary to point out that Paul's “letters” were not simply personal correspondence like a letter you or I might write, but were official apostolic letters, intended to be read publicly and received as authoritative. It is altogether appropriate that we call them Paul's “Epistles.”
Today's reading comes from Romans 8, the apex and summit of the entire book. This chapter, as a whole, deals with the doctrine of sanctification, the process in which the pardoned and born-again sinner is gradually and progressively made over into a saint. We all know, as Paul surely knew, that this does not happen instantly! This is a process which goes on through our entire earthly lives (and perhaps even in the next life as well). By experience we know it is not a consistent process, but advances by fits and starts.
This new life-style requires a certain degree of exertion on our part. This is why Paul says, “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” By “flesh” of course Paul means our old sinful nature, the fallen nature we had reborn. We owe nothing at all to that nature. On the contrary, we are debtors to our new “born-again” nature.
Paul has already told us in this Epistle that for the time being, we are people of two natures simultaneously, which he calls flesh and spirit, the old sinful nature and the new life in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, there is always a tension, a certain degree of conflict between the two natures in the Christian person. This is well expressed in the formula simul iustus et pecccator, "a righteous man and a sinner at the very same time." Righteous by virtue of God's decree of pardon and acquittal, sinful by reason of our imperfect sanctification.
A major key word in today's passage is the term “adoption.” When Paul wrote “When we cry, Abba, Father, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” Adoption is a fairly common thing in our time, but in Paul's world it was somewhat rare—a legal procedure practically limited to the extremely rich. It purpose was to secure an inheritance to a person unrelated by blood, a person who had no right of inheritance, no valid claim at law.
To become adopted as an incalculable privilege, entitling the adoptee to numerous privileges. In order to live out the new life we have been granted this gift, a gift so great we might doubt its very reality. Therefore the Spirit Himself—the Third Person of God Himself—assures and reassures us, “bearing witness with our spirit.” LKW