(Audio recorded live, 19 September 2021)
Wis 2:12, 17-20; Ps. 54; Jas 3:16-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37
Today’s readings focus on ambition. The Book of Wisdom describes how the wicked cannot stand those who are just. The reproaches of the just are obnoxious to them. Why is that? Why do the wicked have a problem when someone corrects them for doing wrong? It’s really quite simple. Their wickedness gives them a false sense of power, whether that be power over their own actions or power over others. This was certainly the case with the leadership in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, and it is not all that different today. Now, not all leaders are wicked, but we can all agree that those who had Jesus killed did not have the right motivations. They saw in Jesus one who threatened their power, so they met him with revilement and torture. And because Jesus predicts this on the way to Jerusalem, it causes his disciples to begin to wonder who might take his place after death. Once again, they fail to hear the most important part of the passion prediction: and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise. Jesus senses this tension in the disciples as asks them why they are arguing. Theirs was a discussion about who was the greatest. In other words, ambition.
We can all relate to today’s gospel passage. One way or another we have all been ambitious and sought to better ourselves, to get a promotion at work, to ace the exam. Such ambition is good provided it is for the right reason. For instance, a husband or wife that works hard for a promotion because it will help the family is good. Their focus is not so much on themselves as it is on supporting their family. But, if one were to work all hours of the day and night because they were only interested in making a name for themselves to the neglect of their family, this would be bad—not only for the individual, who becomes a workaholic, but also to their loved ones, who suffer neglect. It is about this latter quest for ambition that Jesus offers a radical teaching.
Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” In other words, the Kingdom of God is not about being first place or stabbing one another in the back to get there. Rather, the Kingdom of God is a matter of humble service to others, like a child. It might be lost on us in today’s culture, but let us consider that children were once a vital part of family survival. Families with many children had many hands to help plant and harvest crops, to help cook and clean house, to help care for the animals. And as they got older and their parents passed, they would receive the family inheritance. Jesus says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me….”
Another quality of children is their innocence. They haven’t experienced all the ups and downs of life that tend to harden one’s heart. Rather, they approach everything with open eyes and open hearts. They are trusting and loving. This is the disposition that Jesus is encouraging his disciples to have: childlike trust in God.
Lastly, St. James offers us helpful insight when it comes to ambition. He says, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” After all, James would know, since it was his mother who demanded that Jesus have him and his brother sit on the heavenly throne to his right and his left. It makes sense that after hearing this teaching of Jesus, he would preach against such ambition in his own letter. He warns us about giving in to our passions and encourages us to embrace wisdom, which is pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits. These gifts only come when we put our ambitions aside for the sake of others.
So, as we prepare to receive Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament, let us open our hearts with childlike innocence, asking the Lord to bless us so that we may carry out his will for the good of others. And may the communion we share today be a visible sign of our unity in Christ, who strengthens us without measure and nourishes our souls for eternal life.