Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who Is Really "The Greatest"?

Fr. Daniel Harrington, a Catholic priest/professor at Boston College’s School for Theology and Ministry, has said: “When I hear about the sufferings of just people, I am challenged to reflect on their courage and to wonder how I would cope in such a situation.  But more important than my self-doubt is the recognition that I belong to a heroic people and a heroic tradition for which principle has often been more significant than any other consideration.  I am proud to stand in the tradition of...the anonymous just man of [the book of] Wisdom, Jesus, the early martyrs...and all those who suffer this day for their faith.” I’m not sure how comforting a message that is to us who, in fact, live in and are influenced by a largely non-believing, self-reliant American culture which espouses and promotes the principle: “Nice people finish last.”

The reading from Wisdom today (1:16-2:1; 12-22) spells out such a philosophy of life, which ultimately is one of death.  It details the contrast between fools, which Scriptural wisdom literature also calls “the wicked”, and the wise.  This is a favorite theme of the Psalms: the way of the foolish compared with the way of the righteous.  The fool’s orientation is to oneself and to one’s own preferences and pleasures.  

James, in the Epistle (3:13-4:3; 7-8a), dares to identify the source of such a way of life by the almost quaint phrase “your passions”, “your cravings”.  From the fool’s perspective, nice people always finish last because they don’t get the fact that the aim of life here is basically to have, to possess things: good and costly things; to feel good and to have fun, to endlessly pursue whatever “high” is available; and to be somebody important.  The weak, the wimp, the “righteous” person deserves to be pushed aside as irrelevant.  “...Let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Following Jesus the Christ, as he bids us, is a hazardous enterprise! A person who does that, you see, is “inconvenient”; she/he is a reproach, just by who she/he is, an obstacle, an accusation.  That kind of person is a constant reminder, a reproof, a burden “because his[/her] manner of life is unlike that of others, and his[/her] ways are strange.

St. James sets in contrast to such jealousy and selfish ambition the true image of one who is genuinely wise and righteous.  That one, he says, is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. In the Gospel (Mark 9:30-37) Jesus gives us an idea of what that might look like: “If anyone would be first, that one must be last of all and”, more than that, “servant of all.” (For “servant” Mark uses the Greek word diakonos literally = one who runs errands; is an attendant, a waiter.  We call that a “deacon”!) Jesus asks nothing more of you and me than he asks of himself: “I came not to be served, but to serve.”  

Then, unconcerned about rank or status, he does a truly counter-cultural thing by sitting down and gathering a small child into his arms.  In our culture a little child is, for the most part, irresistible, endearing, someone to whom we’re naturally drawn.  That wasn’t so in Jesus’ time.  Adults were consumed with earning honor, above all else.  Honor was a socially acknowledged claim to worth.  A grown person might do the ethically correct thing, but if he/she didn’t earn other people’s respect and honor, or wasn’t acknowledged for whatever reason, that person was a nobody.  There were various ways to earn honor: to show bravery, be a brilliant speaker, become a well-respected teacher, or give gifts away: in other words, buy your honor.  To serve others was considered the work of slaves.  When Jesus was later crucified, for example, that was considered not only an extreme loss of honor: it was the ultimate disgrace. Notice in the Gospel how Jesus catches the disciples off-guard as they arrive at Capernaum.  He  quizzes them on what they were wrangling about on the way there.  “Oh! That...!” Mark’s little aside to his readers blows their secret: “...they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest...

Getting back to the child, in the Greco-Roman world a child was utterly powerless, totally dependent, without legal rights, completely subject to the authority of the head of the household, lacking any social standing at all.  By his action Jesus says that the man or woman who welcomes and accepts an utterly defenseless person, one with no legal rights or claims to anyone’s compassion, one who can’t offer money, who has no prestige, privilege, and therefore power: that man or woman is truly righteous and wise before God.  And, in his book, “nice” people always finish first, because in welcoming the needy person, he/she welcomes Jesus as well as the Father who sent him.  That means much more than that it’s “nice” to stick up for the underdog.  What Jesus is really saying is that it’s exactly there where you take the risk of offering your compassion to a defenseless, powerless one that you will look into the eyes of Jesus himself.

But, you see, the fools and the unwise don’t get this, because their passions, their cravings get in the way. Why do people deliberately cheat and steal, and cause misery in millions of lives when the stock market crashes?? Why do people con others into drug or alcohol addiction or child prostitution, and into all the other miseries associated with that?? Because at the root of every one of these is a passion, a desire, a craving for what I want, when I want it, and how I want it, to put me before everyone else.  St. Augustine, himself a self-willed, long-time student in the school for selfishness, eloquently reflects on it all in his famous Confessions, written when he was between 43 and 46 years old, about thirty years before he died. His conclusion is this: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

In a society in which politicians can casually blow off almost half of a struggling population as worthless moochers, trying to convince “nice” people that, in emulating the kind of philosophy which Jesus taught, they’ll end up last, the Eucharist which we share convinces us otherwise.  When we celebrate together in Word and Sacrament, we learn through Jesus’ example of giving himself completely to us how to be servants, “deacons”. Through the challenging and strange irony of choosing to be last of all and servant of all for his sake, we find ourselves being “the greatest”: first in the lives of the ones we serve, in our own lives, and before God.  


1 comment:

John-Julian, OJN said...

Outstanding sermon! And it gave me some good ideas to use myself. Deep and good thanks.