John 12:20-33, Fifth Sunday of Lent
We all nurse a secret dream of glory. We daydream that in some way we will stand out and be recognized. And so we fantasize about great achievements that will set us apart from others and make us famous. The daydreams vary but, inside them, always we are at the center—the most admired person in the room, the one scoring the winning goal, the ballerina star, the actor picking up the Academy award, the author writing the best-seller, the intellectual winning the Nobel Prize, or even just the one in the circle who tells the best story.
What we are chasing in all this is notice, appreciation, uniqueness, and adulation so that we can be duly recognized and loved. We want the light to be shining on us.
And this isn’t all bad or unhealthy. We are built to stand in the spotlight. Our own reality is massively (sometimes oppressively) real to us and scientists today tell us that the universe has no single center but that everywhere and every person is its center. And so it is not a big secret that each of us feels ourselves at the center and wants to be recognized as being there. We nurse a secret dream of glory and, partly, this is healthy.
What’s less healthy in our daydreams is how we envision that glory. In our fantasies, glory almost always consists in being famous, in standing out, in achieving a success that makes others envious, in somehow being the best-looking or the brightest or the most talented person in the room. In our fantasy, glory means having the power to actuate ourselves in ways that set us above others, even if that is for a good motive. For instance, some of our fantasies are daydreams of goodness, of being powerful enough to squash evil. Indeed, that was the messianic fantasy. Before Jesus was born, good-hearted and religious people prayed for a Messiah to come and, in their fantasy, that Messiah was generally envisaged as a worldly superstar, a person with a superior heart and superior muscles, a Messiah who would reveal the superiority of God by out-muscling the bad.
But, as we see from the Gospels, real glory doesn’t consist in out-muscling the bad, or anyone else. When Jesus was being crucified, he was offered precisely the challenge to prove that he was special by doing some spectacular gesture that would leave all of his detractors stunned and helpless: “If you are the Son of God, prove it, come down off the cross! Save yourself!”
But, with a subtlety that’s easy to miss, the Gospels teach a very different lesson: On the cross, Jesus proves that he is powerful beyond measure, not by doing some spectacular physical act that leaves everyone around him helpless to make any protest, but in a spectacular act of the heart wherein he forgives those who are mocking and killing him. Divine kingship is manifest in forgiveness, not in muscle.
That is real glory, and that is the one thing of which we really should be envious, namely, the compassion and forgiveness that Jesus manifested in the face of jealousy, hatred, and murder.
We see this illustrated in the Gospels in the incident where James and John come to Jesus and ask him to give them the seats of glory at his side. Jesus takes their request seriously and does not, on that occasion, caution them against pride. Rather he asks them: “Can you drink from the cup [of suffering] that I shall drink?” In naiveté, they answer: “We can!” Jesus replies: “The cup that I shall drink you shall drink, but as for the seats [of glory] at my right hand or left, these are not mine to give.”
What Jesus is saying, in effect, is this: You will taste suffering, everyone will, and that suffering will make you deep. But, it won’t necessarily make you deep in the right way. Suffering can make you deep in compassion and forgiveness, but it can also make you deep in bitterness and anger. However only compassion and forgiveness bring glory into your lives.
Jesus defines glory very differently than we do. Real glory, for him, is not the glory of winning a gold medal, of being a champion, of winning an Oscar, or of being an object of envy because of our looks or our achievements. Glory consists in being deep in compassion, forgiveness, and graciousness—and these are not often spawned by worldly success, by being better-looking, brighter, richer, or better muscled than those around us.
We all nurse the secret dream of glory. Partly this is healthy, a sign that we are emotionally well. However, this is something that needs to grow and mature inside of us. Our secret dream of glory is meant to mature so that eventually we will begin, more and more, to envision ourselves as standing out, not by talent, looks, muscles, and speed, but by the depth of our compassion and the quality of our forgiveness.
*image from the Internet