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?

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