WHO'S THE GREATEST DOESN'T MATTER. HOW YOU TREAT PEOPLE DOES!
TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B
September 20, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Wisdom 2:12;17-20 Psalm 54 James 3:16-4:3 Mark 9:30-37
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Today’s gospel reading is the second of three “passion predictions” in Mark - we heard the first one last week. Jesus again said he was going to suffer and die, and like His previous prediction, the disciples didn’t know quite what to make of what Jesus was saying. They were more concerned about playing a game of one-upsmanship with each other, much as human persons often do. Nowhere is that more true than among Christians.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, over thirty nine thousand denominations of Christians existed as of the year two thousand seven. Some were born out of long-simmering and serious theological disagreements. Others were formed because someone got mad at someone else based on an actual or perceived insult. What many of denominations have in common is this: they say “our way is right, other ways are wrong, we are better.” What the world sees in Christianity is an unfortunate continuation of the argument between disciples presented in today’s Gospel about “who is the greatest.” Here in Palm Springs, we have Baptist, Methodist, U-C-C, Episcopal, Roman, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Seventh-Day Adventist, and numerous small non-denominational protestant churches, to name just a few. To a non-Christian thinking about becoming one the situation must be super-perplexing: which one shall I join, when all claim, in one way or another, to be “the greatest” in comparison to others. Arguments about “who is the greatest” also permeate the secular world, with debates about such as, but not limited to, who is the greatest athlete, entertainer, author, politician, or artist. And this mode of thinking carries over into academia with debates over who is the greatest student, and into businesses, where employees debate among themselves who is the best. We live in a meritocratic society, where rank-ordering has become of tremendous importance in determining who is rewarded, for what, and how much. “Who is the greatest” however, is really the wrong thing to argue. The discussion we should be having is, “does it matter?” For Jesus, it did not matter. What mattered to Jesus was, as we heard last week, is whether His disciples were able to pick up their cross and follow Him. Human, earthly definitions of greatness were not relevant to the mission of Jesus to make the Kingdom of God a reality. What matters, among other things, in the Kingdom of God, is what is laid out in today’s Epistle, which urges us to allow God’s wisdom to permeate our lives: above all, a message of peace. Arguments among people over “who is the greatest” often degenerate into passionate conflict as one person envies what another has. Those who seek goodness sew peace in place of jealousy and selfish ambition. Unfortunately, some of the most passionate arguments about “who is the greatest” are to be found within churches as people argue about who should occupy positions of power. These arguments, however, are one colossal time waste, and detract what we should be doing, which is embracing the cross of Jesus, embracing sacrifice, humbling ourselves to accept Jesus through the meekness of a little child.
Just this week, I read a news story about a twelve year old Muslim boy with dark skin who invented a clock and brought it to school to show his teacher. As any teacher will tell you, students often do things to impress teachers. This teacher, however, decided the clock might be a bomb because it was ticking. The teacher thought that the boy was a terrorist. The school called the police, and he was arrested, handcuffed, and booked. The boy was later released and never charged with anything. Really, no school massacre of which I am aware was committed by a 14-year-old walking into class carrying a bomb who showed the device to his engineering teacher first. And no bomb of which I am aware was also an alarm clock. The national reaction to that story was heart-warming. The media sought him out. President Obama invited him to the White House. Mark Zuckerberg invited him to the Facebook Campus. Countless other corporate and educational institutions responded in a similar, positive manner. Yet the school suspended him for three days and the local mayor supported the school and the police. The corporate and educational institutions who praised and embraced the young man responded to him as Jesus wants us to respond to children. They embraced little Ahmed. Without intending to do so, they embraced the values set out in today’s Epistle: wisdom from above that is pure, peaceable, and gentle, from which flow good fruits. They cultivated peace. They actuated the Kingdom of God, even if they did not intend to do so. That is the kind of world Jesus wants. Contrast that good behavior with bad behavior of the mayor and the school system. Their concerns about safety were entirely without merit based on undisputed facts. Their evaluation of the situation and their response was completely unacceptable. In calling the police and having this boy arrested and then suspended, this school continued the Bible-belt’s cultivation of hostility against people of color and non-Christians, all of which have no place in a civilized world. They were not willing to go to the cross to be crucified in the next election. They thought only of saving themselves. They were unable to accept that doing the right thing sometimes entails bearing a cross and enduring the insults from a crowd. They instead embraced a legalistic view of life, driven by fear and thinking only of their own survival – unlike Jesus, who willingly gave up His life to conquer death itself. This is exactly the philosophy that motivates some so-called Christians: make and enforce laws to protect against those with different faiths and different skin colors. So many people fear those who are different from themselves and use that fear to justify abusing others. What I liked also in this story, is Ahmed’s response. It was very Christian: as Jesus advocated, he has shaken the dust off his feet and left a place where he was not appropriately received. He’s off to another school, probably on a scholarship.
In telling this story, I am invoking the “wisdom” tradition of our Judeo-Christian heritage, by looking at the facts and discerning what is just and compassionate. I am neither looking at divine laws nor prophetic revelation nor past history. I am looking at the here and now and coming to a common sense conclusion. Jesus was of the wisdom tradition in Judaism. He was not one to pronounce ideological platitudes unconnected to reality and then pass judgments on people and situations in terms of the platitudes rather than the reality on the ground. Jesus dealt with life on a pragmatic level based on actual human experience. He was able to do that because He was fully human. What is the “wisdom tradition”? It is an approach to finding answers to situations based on common sense, discretion and prudent judgment. It is the application of experience to life, tempered with flexibility to comprehend and respond to contemporary situations with common sense. The wisdom tradition contrasts with other biblical traditions: with the prophetic tradition, which relies on judgments from God transmitted through a human prophet; it also contrasts with the law tradition found principally in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which analyze situations through the lens of commandments; and it contrasts with the historical tradition found in the books of Samuel and Kings where truths about God are discerned based on events. Certain books of the Bible are designated as “wisdom books,” like Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the book from which today’s first reading is taken, the Wisdom of Solomon. Today’s first reading is lifted from a context of a comparison between good and bad people which explains in some detail why evil people will never prevail over good people. The complete story is found in the Book of Wisdom one sixteen through three twelve. The theme of the story has wicked people condemning virtuous people as an obstruction to living “the good life” in our short days on earth. You’ve heard the sayings, “Carpe diem” meaning “seize the day” or “life is short, enjoy it.” That’s why paragons of virtue are often not popular in the short term, even though that for which they stand is often vindicated in the end. Imagine someone in a bar not drinking alcohol in the midst of a drunken mob. Imagine further that this person suggests to police officers keeping watch outside to start arresting people for drunk driving as they exit the parking lot into the street. I assure you, the person working with the police is not going to be a popular person in the immediate term. She or he will be condemned as a stool pigeon who turned everyone’s fun evening into anything but fun. But even though that person may have caused a considerable amount of short term inconvenience to the bar patrons, that person may have saved their lives. Drunk driving is an evil to be called out, given the high correlation between drunk driving and fatal traffic collisions. The same is true with Jesus. He called out those who did evil, and people got mad at Him for doing it and executed Him. But Jesus ultimately saved all of humanity, including those who harmed Him, by conquering death to make way for the Kingdom of God. A willingness to sacrifice one’s own life is what will bring about that Kingdom, not arguing with others about, “who is the greatest.” That is what all denominations of Christians must do. They must all sacrifice their denominational pride by ceasing arguments among themselves over “which church is the greatest.” Claiming to be the “one true church” and going to war with other Christians to vindicate that kind of arrogance does anything but propagate God’s kingdom. Non-Christians look at that kind of spectacle and are utterly disgusted at the ongoing perpetuation of bad feelings that lead to acts demonstrating a lack of love and charity. To give you just a small illustration of what I mean, a Roman priest in Baltimore was condemned and disciplined by his bishop for allowing a female Episcopal priest to concelebrate a Requiem Mass with him. Rather than embracing fellow Catholic Christians in the way Jesus would have us embrace children as a spiritual pathway to the Divine Presence, the Roman Church continues to argue with Anglicans and other catholic Christians about whose Holy Orders are better. In so doing, they forget the overall big picture of what ministry really is: caring for people. It is not about arguing who has a better ticket to heaven. The fact is, we will never know what religion or denomination thereof is “the greatest” in God’s eyes. Thus, the argument over “who is the greatest” is an utter waste of time. What we do know is that caring for people, and making peace among people, without considering denominational labels, is more likely to improve the world in which we live in the here and now than any scheme of exclusion driven by humans arguing among themselves about “who is the greatest.” AMEN.