Thursday, October 15, 2015

Greatness in serving

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Day 3 – 18th October 2015

In recent years one of the most popular books in our culture was The Secret. The premise of the book isn’t that original. It’s the same old rehashed stuff preached by many positive thinking self-help gurus and eulogised in saccharine sweet popular songs, like the one sung by the late Whitney Houston, “The greatest love of all.” It’s ironic that something marketed as a mind-blowing secret has already been in the market for some time, in fact one can even trace it to the 16th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, who postulated this maxim, “I think therefore I am!” The book’s supposed revelation is that you are the centre of the universe, and you can attract all good things to yourself through your thoughts. In other words, you are capable of making your own destiny. The universe exists to serve you, and the secret is that you can attract greatness to yourself. In essence, you are your own god. So serve yourself.

The fact that this book is a best seller betrays the inclination and secret dream of many in desiring to be “great.” Be honest now. Have you ever fantasised about being great? I have. Something deep within us cries out to be recognised as somebody special. To get up in front, to achieve. Or even to be close to someone who does.  A friend once told me that you don’t have to be personally rich or influential, you just need to know people who are rich and influential. Such is the scenario when James and John make their request. Let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first.

Today’s gospel dispels this myth of self-importance. If the world says, that you are great when many look up to you, or when you have others at your beck and call, Jesus says the opposite. “If anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.” To seek one’s greatness and power, Jesus tells us, is at odds with kingdom values. Gentiles lord their authority over one another, a reference to the Roman system where humility was a vice and might was always right. On the other hand, God’s children serve one another. Greatness is found in putting others first and in seeking the welfare of others above one’s own.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to grasp this important truth of the gospel. Modern culture tends to confuse greatness with pedestals. It is much easier to define greatness in terms of power, possessions, prestige, and position. Let’s face it, in a culture that seems driven by ambition, power, and materialism, acting like a servant is a most unpopular concept. Interestingly, these are “things” found in the temptations of Christ in the desert, temptations which he firmly rejected. Christ’s identity was firmly rooted in his total obedience to the Father’s will. His “ministry” was literally a service to the Father, it was never a show of wealth, or power, or popularity.

Can we be faulted if the apostles themselves fell prey to ambition’s false allure? The request of the two brothers for places of honour in the kingdom not only reflected the common expectation of their contemporaries for a messianic kingdom of political and temporal dimensions, it also reflects modern man’s ambition for greatness, attested to by the proliferation of narcissistic YouTube videos, selfies, and reality TV. Back then, the ambitious siblings were eyeing for key positions in Jesus’ cabinet. Today, many, including those within the Church, jockey for position and prominence.

Following the rather naïve request of the two brothers, followed by the indignation and envious reaction of the others, this passage appropriately includes a lesson on true discipleship and its demands. Exploding their pipe dreams of self-importance and political prestige, Jesus endowed his disciples with an authority to be exercised in service. Paradoxically, those who would be great in the kingdom Jesus proclaimed would seem to be the last of all and the least among all. Jesus challenged his own to look at life, not from the top downward, peering over the heads of others in a false sovereignty, but from life’s underside, from the seamy, less appealing aspects, the perspective of a humble servant.

Pope Emeritus Benedict in an Angelus meditation said, “Authority, for human beings, often means possession, power, dominion and success. Instead for God authority means service, humility and love; it means entering into the logic of Jesus who stoops to wash his disciples’ feet (cf. Jn 13:5), who seeks man’s true good, who heals wounds, who is capable of a love so great that he gives his life, because he is Love.” By stooping down to wash the disciples' feet at the Last Supper, Jesus is calling them not just to be good shepherds, but to exercise authority at the heart of community in a totally new way, a way that is humanly incomprehensible and impossible.  It is just as new and just as impossible as his invitation to forgive seventy-times-seven times, to love enemies and to do good to those who hate us, to give our clothes to those who ask for them, to be constantly gentle and non-violent.  It is just as amazing as when he identifies himself with the poor and the outcast.  In every action and teaching, he reinforces this most central truth, “In my kingdom, the greatest must become the smallest.”  

In the Kingdom of God, the values of the world are inverted. For Jesus, last is the new first. If you choose to be a servant now, you will be first for all of eternity. If you choose to serve in this brief life, you will be rewarded for all of eternity. The Kingdom therefore measures greatness in terms of service, not status. So, in a world where we all desire greatness, some secretly and others less subtly, the truth of today’s gospel provides the answer. In a sermon early in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Jesus’ words in today’s gospel passage. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. . . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

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