Today we celebrate the feast day of St James the Greater, not to be confused with the writer of the Epistle of St James or St James the Lesser who was head of the Jerusalem community. He was the brother of St John and, like him, a fisherman. He was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and one of those who slept through most of the Agony in the Garden. He was the first of the apostles to be martyred, being beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I to please the Jewish opponents of Christianity. He was buried in Jerusalem.
The following is the commentary of Bible Alive on today’s gospel (Matt 20:20-28).
Have you ever done anything you were ashamed of and embarrassed by? Have you ever gone into the privacy of your room and put your head into your hands because of something silly you said or did? If you have, you are in good company! Welcome to the human race!
Perhaps there have been other times when it’s a family member or friend who has done something that has made you want to curl up and die. It is possible, likely even, that this is how James and his brother John felt when they looked back on the incident, retold in our Gospel today, in which their mother approached the Lord on their behalf. [In another version told in Mark’s gospel, the brother’s make the request themselves.] In the spirit of all ambitious mothers she sets about securing her two sons a position of power and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. Although her name is lost to history she clearly was no shrinking violet and was bold and confident in approaching the Lord.
The Lord takes the opportunity to teach about love, service and humility. No matter the age, this teaching is badly needed because the vast majority of us misunderstand what true greatness is. From time immemorial, greatness has been identified with position, power, rank, status, wealth — all those things which give birth to arrogance, conceit and lording it over others. Basically Jesus dropped a huge bombshell on our understanding of power and position. For he, the Lord Jesus Christ, the holder of the highest and most powerful position not just on earth but in the whole universe, humbled himself and took upon himself the mantle of a servant. So the bottom line for Christians is, if you want to be great, valued, esteemed and so on, serve.
Praise God for Pope Francis who is displaying just this kind of attitude through his pontificate. Consider his position: he is head of the Church and head of a state but he willingly washes the feet of young prisoners. [Whilst on international trips he stands in line for boarding the plane with the rest of the passengers, holding his carry-on luggage.] This is the Pope we want, and these are the kind of priests we want and the kind of lay people we want. James did indeed undergo the same baptism as the Lord: he underwent the baptism of martyrdom and, according to tradition, was beheaded.
Lord Jesus, you call us to be servants and to seek greatness not by lording it over others or by control or by being authoritarian, but through self-sacrifice and loving service.