I heard a story once about a man who owned a pizza parlor in New York City. When he was looking for a location the only vacancy he could find already had three pizza parlors. One sign said, “Best pizza in New York!” Another said, “Best pizza in America!” And another said, “Best pizza in the world!” He thought about his future competition and wondered how he would publicize his pizza, so he put up his brand new sign… “Best pizza on THIS street!”
We all want to be the best at what we do to honor God and our family but when we get carried away with being better and more important than anyone else, our ego gets in the way. I doubt this story is true, but it does show how competitive we can be when it comes to business. Many of us are just not satisfied being #2. We will only settle for being #1.
The desire to be #1 is exactly what this morning’s Gospel can help us with. God has given us the perfect formula to be #1 for all eternity! "Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask. Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.’” (Mark 10.35,37) It was just last week when we heard Christ say, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9.23) which is what makes what comes next so confusing.
Christ said, “You do not know what you ask. To sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10.40) If the Apostles believed, why was it not possible for them to sit one on His right and one on His left? The answer is in the rest of Christ’s answer. He says, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life for a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.42-45) Quite simply, it is not possible to believe in God and demand to be first.
In other words, if we desire to be first in heaven we must serve each other and put each other first. When we serve others rather than our own desires, Christ will place us first in heaven. Those for whom the right and the left has been prepared are those who “have set their hopes of salvation and approval on the proof of their own good works.” (Saint John Chrysostom – Homily LXV on Matthew) Don’t you see, we cannot love God and demand our place ahead of the needs of others?
Listen to the affect of James and John demanding first place. “And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” (Mark 10.41) Their actions put the unity of the Apostles at risk just as it places our community unity as a family at risk when members of our community demand to have their way or no way. James and John reveal for us the risk of being selfish and Christ warns us. “And whoever desires to be first shall be slave of all.” (Mark 10.44)
You could say whoever desires to be first WILL end up being the slave of all. Just look at the life of Saint Mary of Egypt. Today we celebrate the memory of a great saint of our Church – a former prostitute. As one story goes, Mary was so proud of her ability to convince men that she approached a group of men on their way to Church for the feast of the Holy Cross. When she attempted to enter the Church, something would not allow her to enter. She wept in front of the Icon of the Theotokos seeking forgiveness and was able only then to enter the Church where she entered and prayed for forgiveness. After Church she fled to live the rest of her life in the desert alone. The Church considers her to be a great example of repentance.
It is repentance that will bring us to heaven my dear brothers and sisters. James and John repented of their demands on Christ and were found worthy to become great leaders of the early Church. Listen to the words of Saint John Chrysostom about their repentance. “But let no man be troubled at the apostles being in such an imperfect state. For not yet was the cross accomplished, not yet the grace of the Spirit given. But if you learn their virtue, notice them after these things and you will see them delivered from all these passions.” (Homily LXV – On Matthew)
The Apostles had the benefit of not knowing about the Resurrection of Christ as their excuse for their behavior. We have no such excuse since we know the rest of the story. We know Christ is Risen and we have received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism. There is no excuse then that we can use for our selfishness or our demand to have our way or no way. We have no excuse when we refuse to serve others. We have only the words of Christ, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life for a ransom for many.”
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we must find a way to follow the example of Mary of Egypt and repent from our sinful ways of life. Our eternal life depends upon it. If we think we are too weak to turn away from our sins then let us cry to the Lord with tears, “I believe Lord, help me however because my belief is not strong.” (Mark 9.24)