Tag Archives: James and John

The Kingdom Beyond Four Dimensions

Feast of St. James

Matthew 20:20-28

What does the kingdom of heaven look like? Jesus never described it in precise scientific or geographical terms suited to the spatiotemporal domain, but always with suggestive images. Like the attempts of the Sphere to describe the third dimension to a two-dimensional Square in Edwin Abbott’s novel, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, unimaginable depths are lost in translation when communicating divine realities in 4-D linguistics. Jesus himself said that he spoke in “figures” (John 16:25).

Each parable or image of the kingdom reflects a tiny spark of a diamond with infinite faces. Using the language of simile, the kingdom of heaven “is like” a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl, a tiny mustard seed, leaven, and a net cast into the sea.

Sometimes the kingdom (term A) is not likened to a concrete noun (term B), but rather to a complex situation with a variety of characters. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who casts seed upon the ground, which grows day and night mysteriously (Mark 4:26-29). At the same time, the kingdom is like a man who sowed good seed, but whose field was sabotaged by an enemy who sowed weeds among the wheat while people were sleeping (Matthew 13:24-30). The kingdom is also described in the parable of the talents, the ten virgins, the marriage feast, the laborers in the vineyard, and the unmerciful servant. The kingdom is populated by the childlike and the poor; the rich enter only with difficulty. Those who detach from house, spouse, siblings, parents and children “for the sake of the kingdom” will be blessed abundantly both in this life and for all eternity.

With such multi-faceted images of the kingdom, the hearer cannot possibly “pin it down” to this or that concrete thing. Yet Flatlanders cannot help conceiving divine glory in terms they can grasp with the hands of their intellect. After multiple parables and examples, none of which suggested dominating power and position, the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus to ask for seats at his right and left hand (Mark 10:35-37). In the Gospel of Matthew, the request came from their mother initially, but Jesus’ response was directed at James and John in both Gospels. 

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.” 

The timing of the request could not have been more discordant with Jesus’ latest intimations to his closest followers. He had just foretold his death at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, with details that he would be mocked, scourged and crucified before being raised on the third day (Matthew 20:18-19). Such an upcoming humiliation did not fit the picture of a commandeering monarch. The request seemed to have come out of left field.

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.” 

Like Peter’s easy declaration that he would stand by Jesus in his darkest hour (Matthew 26:33), James and John glibly volunteered to share in Christ’s suffering. They had no idea what they were promising, as all three of Jesus’ inner circle ran away from the garden of Gethsemane with the rest of the band (Mark 14:50).

James and John would ultimately share the divine cup of suffering, Jesus foretold, but deferred any prospect of heavenly “positions” to the 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.”

Were the other ten jealous in overhearing this conversation? Their lack of peace revealed an inner vexation at the possibility of being surpassed by their peers. A negative competitiveness was brought to the fore. Yet vying for the first and second positions in a kingdom barely understood was certainly odd. Instead of concentrating on being and becoming a person fit for the kingdom, the focus shifted to one’s status relative to others. Such ambitions are vain and the opposite of childlike, for status, in itself, is empty. Even a spiritually undeveloped person may sit in a seat of honor. Such “glory” is no glory at all, but a facade. Far happier is the unknown but grace-filled person.

The kingdom in the image of the Trinity is one of reciprocal self-emptying—a circumincession (interpenetration) or perichoresis (“dance”) of persons within one another. No person stands over against another in a lordly manner as the oneness of communion precludes such juxtaposed relativity rooted in four-dimensional experience. 

In the kingdom beyond, thoughts about position and status will not even occur as they arise from the realm of relativity. Cognition in this world is a lot like that of the Square in Flatland. What mystic consciousness in the Trinity will be like surpasses the power of mind immersed in untransfigured matter to conceive.

During our earthly 4-D pilgrimage, the way to greatness is smallness, and the kingly person is a servant. Spiritual truths do not cater to comfort, but mirror the Cross of self-negation. Relativity is the framework for diminishing and diminishing until our nothingness becomes the all in all of Trinitarian Love.


Martha, Martha


We read St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Bethany for the Feast of St. Martha. It’s part of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 10,38-42), a journey Luke describes,  not by miles, but by the people Jesus meets.

Jesus is a prophet speaking God’s word as he goes. Some reject him outright on his way to Jerusalem.  Jesus enters the house of Martha and Mary as a prophet speaking God’s word. Unfortunately Martha, busy about many things, misses his word and Jesus rebukes her. Mary hears his word and is praised. Good as she is, Martha’s carrying too many of the “cares of this life” when Jesus visits.

That’s what Luke wants us to learn from this gospel- the cares of this life can get in the way of hearing God’s word. But we all know there’s more to Martha than what Luke tells us here. Other New Testament sources praise this good woman.  John’s gospel, for example, says that  Jesus was a long time friend of Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany.

I keep two other sources in mind when I read Luke’s story.  One is a painting (above) by the 13th century Tuscan artist, Giovanni di Milano, showing Jesus with Martha and Mary at Bethany.

The artist imagines a supper at Bethany. The table’s set for four people– that would be Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha. But look at the others coming in the door. Obviously, they’re Jesus’ disciples, led by Peter. One disciple gestures towards Peter, as if saying, “He told us to come.”

Poor Martha in her apron holds up her hands in frustration, “What are we going to do?”
There will be no miracle. The miracle is Martha’s hospitality. Thanks to her,  more than four are going to be fed. We need artists like di Milano to flesh out what the gospels say.

The other source I like is St. Augustine who obviously has a soft spot for Martha and the work she does. Both Martha and Mary had the same holy desire, Augustine says: “ They stayed close to our Lord and both served him harmoniously when he was among them.”

Martha served him as the “Word made flesh,” who was hungry and thirsty, tired and in need of human care and support. She longs to share what Mary enjoys, his presence, his wisdom and his gifts. And she will find her desires fulfilled.

“You, Martha, if I may say so, will find your service blessed and your work rewarded with peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland you will find no traveller to welcome, no one hungry to feed or thirsty to give drink, no one to visit or quarreling to reconcile, no one dead to bury.”

“No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. What Mary chose in this life will be realized there in full. She was gathering only fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.”

Want to see Bethany, home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Take a look here.

3rd Sunday: A Sabbath Day


To listen to the audio for today’s homily, select the file below:

One disadvantage in reading the scriptures as we do in our liturgies on Sundays and weekdays is that we can miss the overall picture an evangelist is trying to paint. By breaking up the scriptures in parts, as we do, we can miss the sweep of the gospel as it unfolds and as one detail leads to another.

That’s especially so for Mark’s gospel, I think. Mark wants to tell an exciting, fast moving story, but read slowly, part by part, Sunday after Sunday, we may miss the breathlessness of the whole account. This is God speaking, revealing himself, God who brings new power and excitement to the world. This is the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark says.

Some years ago I went to a play on Broadway called The Gospel of Mark. It featured a famous English actor, Alec McCowen, who came onstage alone, put a copy the New Testament on a table– “just in case” he said– and then proceeded to tell the whole story of Mark’s Gospel, just as it was written, from memory. It was a wonderful experience, listening to the whole gospel story unfold.

It might be good to do something like that with our gospel today, about the call of the disciples, from the first chapter of St. Mark. Let’s look at it in its setting, what comes before it and what comes after it.

Before Jesus calls his disciples, Mark says as the other gospels do that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John. “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased,” a voice from heaven says. The Spirit then drove Jesus “at once” into the desert to be tempted for forty days. Mark summarizes those events in few words. He moves quickly to bring Jesus into Galilee, into the world where the Good News is proclaimed.

After John had been arrested,

Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:

“This is the time of fulfillment.

The kingdom of God is at hand.

Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

“John was arrested,” Mark says. A dangerous time. but the kingdom of God is stronger than dangerous times. With simple words Mark tells the story.

Jesus meets four fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, Peter and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John. He calls them, promising to make them “fishers of men.” Immediately– there’s no delay– they leave their nets and families to follow him. They’re taken by him and they want to share what he does. (Mark 1, 14-20)

And the story doesn’t stop there. Right away after they’re called, Jesus and the fishermen go into Capernaum, a fishing village along the Sea of Galilee. It’s the Sabbath Day, the day of God’s blessing. They enter the synagogue and Jesus begins to teach. His teaching immediately amazes those who hear him, the same amazement the fishermen felt when he called them.

Then, a possessed man in the synagogue shouts out at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebukes him. “Quiet! Come out of him!”

“The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.” They’re all amazed. This is different, his teaching, his silencing of evil.

Mark says: “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.” What would we expect? The people from synagogue that day go out and tell others what they saw and heard. There is someone here from Nazareth who teaches and works wonders we have never seen or heard before. (Mark 1,21-28)

They leave the synagogue; Peter and his brother Andrew take Jesus to their house, a compound not far from the synagogue. James and John, the other two disciples are with them. Peter’s mother in law is sick in bed and immediately they tell him about her. Going to her Jesus takes her by the hand and helps her up. The fever leaves her and she begins to wait on them. She is not only healed, she becomes a disciple. She’s serving people, helping them. She has become a disciple of Jesus, Mark is saying.

Of course, she not only waits on others, but Peter’s mother in law must have told her neighbors. The news spreads. By evening, after sunset “they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him. (Mark 1,21-34)

Now, that’s one exciting Sabbath day. The next day, Jesus goes with his disciples to other synagogues and towns where he teaches and performs miracles. The excitement continues, but Satan who tempted him in the desert and the man possessed by a demon in the synagogue take on new forms. Jesus faces opposition, growing opposition, from the leaders of his people. Scribes question him for daring to forgive sins. They call him the devil himself. Pharisees accuse him of not keeping Jewish laws; enemies begin to plot to put him to death. Eventually they’ll do just that, they’ll put him to death.

His own family came down from Nazareth to take him home because they think he’s out of his mind. And Capernaum and other cities that received him with excitement will turn away from him. People who clapped their hands and ran to the synagogues where he taught turned away. They had better things to do.

What has that to do with us? Well, we might have the same experience we see before us in Mark’s Gospel. The kingdom of God has been promised to us. What greater promise can we receive?There’s a power and attractiveness to the person of Jesus. Who can deny the beauty of his teaching, to love one another? Forgiving one another? Caring for the poor and those in need?

Who can deny also that there is evil in this world, a powerful evil that makes us question and fear? Even Jesus fears, according to Mark’s gospel. It’s good to read the scriptures, especially the gospels. They describe Good News, real news.


And Don’t Look Ahead

Strange thing to say, isn’t it? We want to see what’s ahead. But in Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem–which we read from this Sunday– Jesus warns his disciples as he nears the Holy City to be wary about what they see coming.

First, some disciples like James and John thought the journey would bring about the kingdom of God on earth and they wanted a big place in it. Their dream didn’t come true. Then, other disciples as they entered the city saw the temple itself, “adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,” and believed something so beautiful would go on forever. They were wrong too.

Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

We have to be wary of messianic claims from those who claim to know the future. “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,” and “The time had come.’ Do not follow them!” Jesus says. The future is in God’s hands, not in ours.

The journey Jesus makes does not end in Jerusalem, according to Luke, it’s completed in his resurrection, and that will surprise us. Luke’s account of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem offers the surprising promise he makes to the thief crucified on his right, whose only hope is in him. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

That’s the future we trust in.

No Life Without Sacrifice

In this Sunday’s gospel (Mark 10,35-45) James and John, two of his disciples, want something from Jesus; they want the power and position they believe he can give them. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

But they want glory without any cost. Grant it and it’s ours, they say to him. They’re looking for an easy way to get something good. Jesus says they want glory “without drinking the cup,” a life without struggle, effort and suffering. But there’s no life without sacrifice.

You can’t live without sacrifice. You can’t have it all and you can’t have it easily. That applies to every level of life.

We have to sacrifice for our own good. For example, we can’t be healthy without adopting a healthy life style, something often hard to do.

We make sacrifices for others, and that’s often hard to do. Parents sacrifice for children; children for parents. Sacrifice for strangers–that’s very hard. Soldiers have  to be ready to give up their lives for their country. The ultimate sacrifice, we say.

Jesus described his own death on the Cross as a sacrifice. That sacrifice was the culmination of a life given for others.

Sacrifice has a holy dimension we may forget.  We remember that dimension at Mass, where we use the word frequently. Sacrifice comes from    two latin words that mean “doing something holy.” If  what we do is good, for ourselves, for others, for our world, we are brought  to God through it, and God blesses our efforts, our struggles and the suffering what we have done entails.

“We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ your Son,

Through him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice”

What are the gifts we offer to God in sacrifice? Yes, they’re the gifts  of his Son, who offered himself to his Father once on the Cross and now becomes our offering to God who blesses us through him.

But they’re our gifts too, our sacrifices, many and varied as they are, that are joined to his and they bring down God’s blessings on us and on our world.

Let’s keep our sacrifices holy.