To be First is to be Last

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (YEAR B)

Readings: Wis 2:12,17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

TODAY’S passage gives us a very good example of why the Gospel of Mark is called the ‘the Gospel of Misunderstanding’. While traveling with Jesus, the disciples were debating who’s the greatest. In the minds of the disciples, the Kingdom of God had nothing to do with the living and active presence of God in their lives, but was about sovereignty, power and the jostling for position in what they think would be a new order that would overthrow the Romans and re-establish the Davidic kingdom—and being in the right position means having a share in glory.

To them this presence of God was a matter of status, of pecking order, of influence-peddling, of hierarchy, of power and of control. And again, there is no shortage of such people even to today. Because of the heightened competitiveness in our society and culture today, to juggle for position—yes, even in the Church—in order to ensure one’s own success, and feed one’s ego becomes more and more important.

The problem with this kind of thinking is, we then place ourselves at the top of the tree of control and manipulation, we then relegate other people to the margins, we ignore their talents and we judge them not as people—not as brothers or sisters—but as competitors, rivals to overcome, or to be beaten or eliminated, sadly all in the name of “following Jesus”. When this happens, God’s actions and presence is no longer the energy of one’s life and a source of authentic joy, but a stepping stone for the attainment of personal ambitions. Indeed, if “following Jesus” means jostling for position and influence, if it becomes a matter of control, then God is the first casualty. Because when this happens, our own ideas, our own plans, our own achievements come first, and our ego must dominate even God because God’s will and authority may prove to be uncomfortable or be a downright barrier to our self-imposed goals.

This is why St James warned his community against jealousy and ambitions. “Wherever you find jealousy and ambition,” he said, “you find disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done… You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so, you fight to get your way by force.”

Does this mean we should not strive for excellence? No, Jesus did not tell his disciples that they should not desire to excel, to achieve, and to do great things. Because to do great things is one of the purposes of our lives: being a sign of God’s goodness by making a positive difference in the world. Instead, Jesus tells His disciples what true greatness really is. And most importantly, Jesus makes his disciples clearly aware that faith and discipleship are neither comfortable and controllable and that it is entirely out of their hands. He not just challenged his disciples’ understanding of kingdom, greatness and discipleship but he proposes something more radical: to serve others, to make others happy, to reach out to those who are weak and in need, like the little children. To be first in God’s Kingdom is to be last. Greatness in Christ’s company means humility, an attitude of the heart that puts the good of others ahead of one’s own preferences: it is self-giving, not self-getting. Jesus did not say to his apostles: “Don’t strive to achieve great things,” but he does point out where true, lasting, fulfilling greatness lies – in loving one’s neighbor as Christ has loved them.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came to reveal the active and living presence of God in our daily life, as well as in the relationship that makes this presence active and living for each individual and as a community. But the key to discipleship is the absolute surrender and dependency to God. And Jesus gives us a perfect example—that of a little child. For children are vulnerable, needy and dependent. To live, all they have is their trust on their parents. The key for us to grow in holiness is precisely trust—trust in God and trust in others. Mistrust and fear engender control, the setting of boundaries and focusing exclusively on oneself. On the other hand, trust like that of a child brings peace, joy, gratefulness and openness to all and everything as the revelation of the active presence of God in our lives.

The Gospel of Mark is the gospel of misunderstanding. Then again, the disciples may be given the benefit of the doubt for misunderstanding Jesus out of ignorance to be replaced by complete understanding after the resurrection. But as for us, we have the benefit of knowing who Jesus really is and more than 2000 years of Tradition and faith reflection. What then is our excuse when we fail to follow Jesus and his teachings?

Look into our Hearts – 22nd Sunday in ordinary Time (Year B)

Readings: Deut 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps 14:2-5, R. v.1; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

“Law should be to protect and foster love for God and each other. Good law should provide a framework in which love, unity and fellowship can grow.”

LOOK to your right. Then look to your left. Can you really tell if the people on either side of you good? If yes, how can you tell? In fact, how can we tell if somebody is good? Better yet, how can we say to ourselves, ‘I am good’?

In the Jewish tradition, especially during Jesus’ time, to be considered good or righteous means one has to follow all the rules of the religion. Like us Christians, they have of course the 10 Commandments. But in addition to these, they also have some 613 rules—from food laws, purity laws and what have you. Just go to the book of Leviticus to get the sense of these rules.

We might be tempted to say: THAT’S TOO MUCH! But for the Jews those rules signify their fidelity to the covenant they entered with God. To do less is to turn away from the God who delivered them from slavery out of Egypt, the God that took care of their ancestors in the wilderness, and the same God who brought them back from exile.

To live by the Law, as we heard from the First Reading and the Psalms, “is to have life” and to “live in the presence of the Lord.” The problem comes when these laws, these rules become divorced from the reason why they were originally enacted. And here, the fallen state of human nature comes in. We tend to focus on the letter of the law—no, we sometimes become obsessed on following the rules, but forget about the good that is being sought out by such rules. Rules are supposed to be for the good. But often times we come up and use various rules to do the opposite.

What we hear from the gospel is a clear example. The Pharisees are known to be a group of Jews who follow to the strict adherence of the Law. But the Pharisees, in Jesus’ eyes, have lost the plot by forgetting that the rules are supposed to bring people closer to God. Instead, they tried to apply the laws to Jesus and his followers in order to label them religiously as “NOT GOOD.”

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they asked Jesus. In response, Jesus said, quoting the Prophet Isaiah: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Nowadays we would say that the Pharisees talked the talk, but did not walk the walk. The standards become the central point instead of being just pointers, signals and reminders of what really matter. Jesus used this opportunity to teach the people to get back to the basics. He cuts through the forest of minute rules and regulations and revealed the whole purpose of God’s Law—as said earlier, Law should be to protect and foster love for God and each other. Good law should provide a framework in which love, unity and fellowship can grow.

Today’s psalms identify the standards for a Just Person—a Good Person: “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;” those “who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.”

Is it not interesting that these standards do not just describe the output of the heart, but also point towards good relationships?

Also, did Jesus intended to disregard the Laws of the Jews? No, nowhere in the scripture points to that. Jesus was not telling his listeners to disregard the Laws. But Jesus was speaking to his disciples, warning them of those evils that can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. The same message—the same warning—is given to us today.

We are being challenged and at the same time encouraged towards renewal by examining our traditional ways of acting and thinking that reflect “mere human standards” instead of God’s will. In our families, our workplaces, our schools, our social clubs and even in our parish community, do we make up rules, and follow them to help us grow together? Do these rules bring the best, bring the good in each of us? Or are we like the Pharisees, who used the Law to label people, to get back at people—meaning not to bring the good?

The church faces great criticism from society because of the mistakes her people, her leadership committed in the past—often, because of trying to stick to the rules but forgetting the purpose of those rules. Now, more than ever, we are being called to look into our own hearts, making perhaps a list of those destructive attitudes that can infect even the hearts of all of us who are striving to follow and be close to Jesus.

Now, more than ever, we are being challenged to be authentic Catholics. St James gives a good advice in the second reading: “Accept and submit to the Word which has been planted in you” … but do “not just listen to it” and think that’s good enough. No, act on his Word!