In the German house in which I grew up there was a table tradition: Everyone waited to eat until the elder at table, grandfather or father, sat down and said: “Mahlzeit,” which translates roughly into “mealtime.” No one at table drank from their glasses until, again, the elder raised his glass and said: “Prost” which is the German word for “cheers.” When Prost was proclaimed, everyone picked up their glasses and toasted with everyone else reachable — kind of like saying the Peace — and then took a sip. After that, one could drink at will, but one did wait for the elder to toast the meal.
A strange habit that played itself out in all the houses in northern Germany when I grew up there. I gather that it was a remnant of a time when all drink was poured by the elder at table. That only happened on rare occasions in my house and then only when wine was served. My father would sample and then pour for all and then “Prost” would be said immediately after.
Cultural anthropology would observe that this habit played itself out in the time of Jesus in similar manner and for the same reason. There was a ritual that went with food and drink and that ritual was to set a place for everyone and everyone to their place. The elder at the table placed you where you belonged and there you would stay, even if that place was at the “Katzentisch,” literally: “Cats’ table.” In practice anyone who did not sit at the main table sat there which in my family meant the kids.
Jesus observes how sitting at table goes awry when one attempts to pick ones own place. (Lk 14:7-11) It was always up to the elder to commence the meal and give you the cup at the place where you where you belonged.
This “cup” business is not trivial. When James and John ask for special consideration they assume that it is for him to decide who goes where in the Jesus movement, meaning that he answers to no one and is not in submission to anyone. They also assume that there will be places of honor to be gotten and that honor is in the offering in those places.
We must also remember that “cup” shows up again in the Gospel. In Gethsemane to be exact: “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mk 14:36) I know, your heart is saying: “But it also shows up in Last Supper.” Yes, it does (Mk 14:23) and the two uses are probably not disconnected. As at the traditional European dinner table, the cup lifted up to say: Prosit, was a sign who was the head of the table. The cup placed before each at table was an acknowledgement that you belonged and your cup was placed in a particular spot that marked your place at that table. The “Cup” was also figurative language for your place in life. When Jesus prays in Gethsemane he laments the place to which the Father has set him.
James and John’s response: “We can drink the cup,” makes little sense because they ultimately seem to claim that they fill Jesus’ place in God’s plan and Kingdom. I trust that you understand that that claim has a few problems and that the whole conversation reeks of misunderstanding what and who Jesus is all about. Yet, he promises that they will drink from his cup and they certainly will: James is one of the early martyrs. Yet, their place at table, or in life, or both, is the Father’s business.
If Jesus’ “powers” — and perhaps that is what the request to be left and right of him is all about — exhibited over sickness and demon alike is merely prophetic and can be handed on like Elijah’s mantle (2K2:9), then it makes sense to ask for them. But if Jesus is the Son of God (Mk 1:1) then his three passion predictions are surely true and the healing is the very power of the Almighty and does not fit into a mantle.
Further, that power is used only to show God’s love for the individual encountered by the Son of God and that Son admonishes all whom he heals to keep their mouth shut about it. He does not wish to be known for his healing and exorcisms. He wishes to be known for proclaiming the kingdom and brining it in by his death and resurrection. (Mk 1:38; Mk 10:32-34)
His admonition to the disciples bears this out even further. Those who want to be at his left and right do not sit in places of power. If one agrees to “drink from his cup,” then a life of self giving, maybe even self abandoning will follow. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 53, the pattern of Jesus’ life, becomes the pattern of the life of those who drink from Jesus’ cup.
I know, this is not the connection between the various uses of “cup” you were hoping for. But the place in this world prepared for the Messiah is sketched out by Isaiah 53. When we lift the cup in the Divine Service we receive it back from the table of the Holy Trinity from the Son and with the Christ within it. We share his cup, we share his life, we will share his suffering. St Francis of Assisi recognized this and in prayer asked: “Lord, two things I ask of you: That in my heart I might know the joy of the resurrection and in my body I might complete the sufferings of my Lord Jesus Christ.” (quoted from memory, real text may vary) A gutsy prayer that I advise you consider carefully before you dare pray it. But, do we not baptize people into the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ? If so, have we and do we accept that the Christian life is of two parts: Rejoicing in the resurrection but humbly taking the cup of humility and suffering for Jesus’ and the Kingdom’s sake?
This is not about being sick or having trouble in life. Those things come to all. To be baptized means to be sat down in life with Christ and from that time on to be marked as a target of the assaults of all that opposes the coming Kingdom of God. To drink of the eucharist is to be recommitted to that place, strengthened to stand the assaults by the strength of the one who comes to us in his Holy Supper.
What then say we about this text? Maybe simply this: None of us ought to think too much about being in charge. A neighbor is not someone or something to be in charge of. Instead, they are to be met with the attitude that we will serve them. The Father has set down a place for all of us in this world. We do well to find out what that place is for each of us. As we do, Jesus admonition needs to ring in our ears: “To be the servant of all.” It is far better a question to ask: “How can I be of help here,” than to ask: “Who is in charge here and why don’t they let me run things?” Heaven asks itself the first question when faced with us.