29th Sun OT Yr B/2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center
It’s all about first place: political campaigns, football games, academics. Finish first, finish best, do better than all the rest, right? Earn the A, get the promotion, make the higher salary; be chosen and honored above others. How much of our lives, in one way or another, is a race for first place? Own the best house, drive the nicest car, wear the best fashion, look the sharpest. Study harder, get that one spot left in the grad school program, be the first to publish or discover. We cheer one another on in these quests; we sacrifice time, talent, and treasure in pursuit of being the best.
Don’t get me wrong. Striving for perfection, improvement, and success isn’t bad in and of itself. Scientific advances that have helped us understand the breadth and depth of creation’s wonder would never have unfolded for us without the innate desire to strive for what’s best. Medical advances that allow us to enjoy longer, healthier life than ever before would have never been available to us without the God given tendency to strive toward excellence.
Striving isn’t bad. That’s why I think that James and John get a bad wrap. We’ve become accustomed to thinking they were simply greedy for glory, prestige and power in heaven. We completely understand the other ten apostles in their response. ‘Hey – wait a minute! Who do they think they are? We want to be first! Move over Zebedee boys, we want our piece, too.’ But I wonder…I wonder if all twelve of them got it wrong. I mean – if the other ten really understood what Jesus was about, they wouldn’t have been indignant would they? They wouldn’t have felt cheated, or threatened by the Zebedee boys’ request – they would have felt compassion for their misunderstanding…
Yes – James and John were the only ones to explicitly ask for places of honor in the kingdom of heaven – but the response of their comrades seems to suggest they were as confused as the Zebedee brothers. Notice – Jesus admonishes all of them – he corrects all of them – he instructs all of them. They all seem to have been missing something…
I think the key to Jesus correcting the apostles – what they all seem to have failed to understand – was that in their desire to be the best, they’d forgotten everyone else. This is what Jesus seems to correct: if you want to be the best, the greatest, you must always consider everyone else. In fact, if you want to win – if you want top prize – you have to make it your job to pay direct attention to everyone else; make sure everyone else is also succeeding. The only winning there is in the Christian life is when we all win – when we all succeed – when we work together toward the goal of perfection.
Here’s the proof, I think, to what Jesus is saying. How would the story have been different if what the rest of the apostles overheard was James and John asking something a little more like: ‘Lord – how can we – all of us – win seats on your right and left hand in heaven’? What can we do to make sure that all 12 of us are seated in places of honor in heaven?’ Or, better yet, ‘Lord, tell us how we can assure that everyone who follows you will win the ultimate crown of honor in heaven.’
All too often, we’re making this same mistake as the apostles, aren’t we? I don’t think we’re always driven by pure and simple greed – I don’t think we’re usually trying to climb up by stepping on others – I don’t believe that our basic motivation to get ahead is simply so we can place others behind or below us. Most of the time I think we simply forget that we can never truly get ahead individually without working to bring others along with us. We strive at work to provide for our families and secure a life as free from uncertainty as possible – that’s not greed. We work hard to perform well in our classes to be good stewards of our educational opportunities and invest in our future, whatever God is calling us to be and however He is calling us to serve others. That’s not a bad thing.
But, if we’re not thinking about those around us, we can look just like James and John, trying to climb the ladder by stepping on the heads of everyone else. And all that does is awaken the same kind of competition in everyone around us. Before we know it, life has devolved into a rat race, an ‘every man and woman for themselves’ free-for-all that leaves us all big, empty losers.
The same thing is true in our lives as Christians. It doesn’t matter how hard you are striving to live the Christian life, how lofty and pious your goals, how sacred and holy your purpose. When you’re so focused on your own growth in virtue and holiness that you forget about helping everyone around you, you lose – and they lose – and the life of love that holds the only true path to the honor and glory of heaven is lost to us all.
Each week we come together – all of us together – to meet the Lord in Holy Communion together. We share together – at the same time – in the same place – the one Body and Blood of Christ. When we do this, we practice in an important way the lesson of today’s Gospel: whoever wishes to be greatest among us must concern themselves with all among us; whoever wishes to be great among us must strive to serve all among us.