Homily for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Sept. 23, 2018. Readings - Letter of St. James 3:16-4:3; Gospel of St. Mark 9:30-37. Theme: True Greatness
Today’s Gospel begins where we left off last Sunday: with Jesus affirming to his disciples that He is, indeed the Christ, the Anointed One, the Promised Messiah. And even though He told them quite clearly – for the second time now - that He was going to be arrested, tortured and killed they still didn’t get it. The idea of a Messiah being overcome by his adversaries was so far beyond their expectations that they just couldn’t imagine it.
You see, like most devout Jews of their time, the Apostles were expecting the Messiah to be a mighty warrior-king. They expected him to lead a powerful army into Roman-occupied Jerusalem, where he would conquer the oppressors, take up his royal throne, and begin his glorious reign. And then those who were his intimate associates would be given power and prestige in his kingdom. They were most likely each imagining themselves in various roles of authority and boasting to the others about their potential for fame, greatness and success! We all engage in that kind of boasting and bragging at one time or another, and we all know way too well what usually fuels that sort of behavior: jealousy and envy. We quite often confuse these two words and use them interchangeably, but actually, while being related, they have different meanings.
Jealousy is concerned about the talents or treasures that we ourselves possess. It opens us up to the dark side of human nature wherein we become suspicious of others and see people as rivals who want to take something or someone away from us and make it their own. Envy, on the other hand, has to do with another person’s talents and treasures. We see what another possesses - such as money, property, or even a relationship - and we want to take it from them. But it can go on to become a treacherous monster-within-us, by stirring up feelings of ill will towards the person or even tempting us to take steps towards making their downfall possible. In our second reading, St. James describes for us the rotten fruit that we produce when we allow jealousy and envy to have a place in our lives. They can become as destructive as a hurricane as they twist our souls out of shape and cause so much damage to us and those around us. If left unchecked they can become like two express lanes to hell, both hell-on-earth and hell-for-eternity.
This is because they are the enemies of charity, which is the love that leads us to life with God, both here on earth and for eternity in Heaven. Charity, in its expression as love for God, has us counting our blessings with grateful hearts and thanking him for the talents and treasures he has given us. And in its expression as love for neighbor, it takes our eyes off of ourselves and what we possess and instead casts them upon the lives of those who are suffering, sick, poor or vulnerable in any way. Compassion and mercy take up the place in our souls that jealousy and envy would occupy if there was room. This is the message of Jesus which the disciples had heard many times. And yet they are arguing among themselves as if they had never heard his teachings at all.
The intervention of Christ into their heated debate must have been an embarrassing occasion for those jealousy-driven and envious disciples. Notice how the Gospel tells us that they fell silent when he questioned them about it. Isn’t that how we all react when our unacceptable behavior is pointed out? I am sure they were also quite stunned and rather confused when Jesus made a child the symbol of those to be served in his kingdom! But that seems to be the way Jesus operates, doesn’t it? He challenges us to rethink our ideas and definitions in light of His truth, in accordance with his Gospel. He tells us to get used to seeing things very differently than how we had been doing. He calls us to rethink how we are living and to ponder what it really means for us to be successful, to be great in this life.
Christ is teaching us in today’s Gospel that the greatest among us are the ones who put love into action by serving the least among us. This is why Jesus held up an insignificant child before the eyes of his disciples. You see, in their day a child was considered a nonperson with no civil rights, no claim to lawful protection, and no social status. And Jesus explicitly tells them to serve such as these. This forgetfulness of self, of ego, was the example given us by Jesus the Messiah, both by his life lived for others and by his death on the cross offered up for others. The mystic St. John of the Cross put it well when he wrote, “In the twilight of life God will not judge us on our earthly possessions or human success, but rather on how much and how well we have loved.”