With grateful hearts we say goodbye to St. Mark and his wonderful Gospel. Over the last year, we have sung Marks'
prayer-song that it will be 'on earth as it is in heaven'. We have nurtured this Sacred awareness of the presence of
God in our lives, and have been pulled back to earth with Heavens Agenda. We are heavens children, with the earth in our hands, shaping it into the world God wants.
And now, as we begin 2019, we continue the journey in the company of St. Luke. Take his Gospel close to your heart
now. Use it to nourish your prayer and understanding in the months ahead. The golden thread of Luke's Gospel is his unashamed inclusion and exaltation of the poor. The Parable of the relentless widow - our theme for the year -
captures beautifully the ebb and flow of justice and mercy hidden in every Parable, every encounter with Jesus.
On this first day of the new year - the first Sunday in Advent - I want to invite everyone to enjoy the Season of Advent. It is a precious time of preparation for the Great Feast and Feasts of Christmastide. If we start celebrating too early, we might lose some of the depth and resonance Advent wraps around the Christmas story, which contain the first hints of the Resurrection of the Beloved Son of God.
We don't have to look very far to hear talk that our beautiful world is falling apart. In today's Gospel, the lamps which God hung in the sky to give light are sending out alarm signals. The polluted waters are fighting back, and the earth which God raised up in the waters, to give us a place to stand, is being reclaimed by oceans which are roaring in pain. We are perhaps more frightened now than we ever were of the consequences of the sins we commit on the world. Perhaps we are reminded of Noah, and are looking for rainbows. Perhaps we are asking, 'Will God keep His promise, even though we keep breaking ours?"
The answer is a resounding Yes! But it is a new Rainbow; and it is the Beloved Son of God. He appears when everything is falling apart. His Advent banishes fear and His strength empowers His disciples to stand up straight. The Beloved Son of God is the new earth, the new place to stand. The waters cannot drown Him. He offers Salvation in the midst of a perishing world.
The collapsing world weighs us down. It fills our hearts with anxiety and paralyses us with fear. There is no anaesthetic available for this pain. We try to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed. But perhaps more from being blinded to the deeper reality. If we do not do this we will be sucked in, dragged down, because alone we are too vulnerable.
The remedy offered by Jesus is prayer and vigilance. As we sink our roots into His spiritual landscape, we can reclaim that true self which cannot be destroyed. Hand in hand with the Beloved Son of God we can find a new courage, not just to survive but to engage with the endings that are to come. Far from cowering before the powers of destruction we lean into them. We hold one another through and beyond every ending which invades our lives.
It does not matter if the ending is present in Global terms, or Social Terms, Political Terms or even in Personal terms. All we know is that these things cannot be avoided. But Jesus teaches the supremacy of the spiritual because it survives whatever history can throw at it. A beautiful story from the Vedanta illustrates this.
Two birds of golden plumage sat in the same tree. The one above, serene, majestic, immersed in its own glory; the
one below restless and eating the fruits of the tree, now sweet, now bitter. Once it ate an exceptionally bitter fruit, then it paused and looked up at the majestic bird above; but it soon forgot about the other bird and went on eating the fruits of the tree as before. Again, it ate a bitter fruit, and this time hopped up a few boughs nearer to the bird at the top. This happened many times until at last the lower bird came to the same branch as the higher bird and lost itself. She discovered, in an instant, that there had never been two birds; only one, serene, majestic immersed in glory.
The spiritual instinct at the heart of this Parable is easy to grasp. How all that flows and changes and how all that
does not flow and change come together in the end. The absolute triumphs.
In the most threatening moments of our lives, the Beloved Son of God comes as a protecting shelter who will not allow final destruction. To sit with a pair of binoculars watching for 'Him coming on the clouds of heaven' is a wonderfully imaginative portrayal and study of Grace. But we should not forget, as we begin this new year, that He can only do this because earlier, and with a loud cry, 'He breathed His last' (Mark 15,37)
Politicians rarely answer questions and yet they are very good at asking them! Perhaps when we feel we have power over others we think we have the right to interrogate them.
As far as Pilate is concerned, Herod is the King of the Jewish People. If Jesus says He is a King, a rebellion can only be around the corner. Jesus is not a politician and He answers Pilates' question as a Holy Man. People are drawn to Jesus by the breadth and depth of His capacity for Love. Is Pilate interested in this or is he focused somewhere else? If His own community have turned against Him and handed Him over to the despised Romans, Pilate wants to know why.
Jesus reassures Pilate that His eye is only on the Throne of God. Since time began, every social, political and religious institution have been built of violence and maintained by force. Jesus’ disciples are not fighting to keep him out of the clutches of these systems. And the reason for that is that the Kingdom in which Jesus is King cannot be found or grown through fighting. But Pilate misses the point and sticks with what he knows best. Is Jesus saying He is a King or not? But King is Pilates word. The Beloved Son of God receives the word 'King' from Pilate, breaks it open, shakes it till it is empty and then fills it with a news meaning. Jesus exercises His authority by witnessing to the truth. Those who are fixated on power and on territory cannot find the depths from which Jesus is speaking. But those who know God's heart can. The truth they know will lead them to the truth about Jesus.
Choosing to become powerless is a huge decision. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter, not quite a Saint yet, strikes with violence and launches the ear of the High priests servant into the shrubbery. Jesus
stops him and heals the man, restoring his ear. After all, Jesus has spent his whole ministry opening people's ears. He knows, only too well, that violent words and actions spell the end of the dialogue. Ears have to be restored for dialogue to resume and for violence to end. The power of The Word is paramount for Jesus. The world He inhabits relies on Love as its only strategy and protection.
Jesus is, of course, THE revelation of God's unconditional love. And He is also a mirror for the unknown territory of the human heart. People somehow get themselves when He is around and the poor find Him to be very attractive. Even the 'other sheep' who are not of this fold move towards Him with joy. But before the cruelty and might of his own leaders, and of Rome, He shows no muscle, no force and instead offers the magnet of revelation.
Becoming powerless also includes making no threats. The revelation of unconditional love is here. If we do not get it or, if we are honest, not really attracted to it, Jesus will not become a terrorist and scare you with the prospect of disaster either side of the grave. Finally, torture - in all its forms - and death can no longer be used as a way to win disciples. We might say that many of the strategies that His 'disciples' have used had already been rejected by the Holy One who simply offers the revelation once more.
Violence is replaced by dialogue. This is quite different from discussion, which has the same root as percussion and concussion. All of these suggest striking something in order to gain territory. Dialogue invites a free flow of meaning that becomes shared by all those involved. It looks as if this is Jesus' preferred mode of influence. As a way of being it was completely lost on Pilate. What did he miss? Only this. Christ is King not because He can bend human will with all His might. He is King because out of love He embraces powerlessness and continues to talk
The disciple is impressed by the power and grandeur of the Temple. After all, it is the religious and economic centre of his world. Every decision that is made there, touches every life in the community. The disciple thinks this will last forever.
Jesus looks with different eyes. He sees the foundations cracking and the facade crumbling. This building does not need minor repairs. It is falling down and will fall apart. It is a tree which bears no fruit. It has become a den of thieves.
Saint Mark describes Jesus as sitting opposite the Temple and opposing all that it stands for. He has predicted its ending and his close disciples clamour for details. They need to get ahead of what is coming. But Jesus description of what is coming is a bitter pill to swallow. Things will have to get worse before they get better. The destruction of the Temple will happen alongside other catastrophes. Nations will go to war, there will be all the usual horrors associated with that. Out of this chaos, false prophets and leaders will emerge, promising a way forward. But tragically they will only lead the disciples more deeply into the land of loss. This is how it begins. The death of this way of life is the birth pangs of something better.
Few people get through life without facing the major collapse that Jesus predicted. Our spiritual, social and political landscapes - which gives us a sense of meaning - can suddenly vanish. The sudden death of a loved one, the unpredicted redundancy, the loss of love or trust are unwelcome visitors who arrive unannounced at any time. No matter how resilient we think we are, we cannot skate through these events. Sudden change or slow transitions often leave us feeling lost, feeling we have no compass and, worst of all that there is no end in sight.
One of the most powerful images of this in-between time is of the trapeze artist who has let go of one bar and has not yet grabbed the other. It is mid-air living. Our old world is gone and the new has yet to arrive. People notice we are not ourselves. We grow tired of people asking us how we are doing with the same intensity as we are hurt when they don't. Our friends try to push us through by telling us to 'hang in there.' We'll find a way to deal with it, to adjust, to go on. The losses that we will never get over we try to get beyond.
But is there any value in these moments? Spiritual Teachers think there
is much to be learned in mid-air living. They seem to agree that this is
the only place we can learn that we are more than what is happening to
us. Just when we thought we were drowning in loss, we watched
ourselves rise above it and our soul caught a glimpse of the unchanging
Love which is our life. In other words, when it's all going our way, this
spiritual truth does not come near us. God is always giving us a place
to stand and it is paradoxically found in the space between the
bars! The Sufi Mystic Rumi wrote that when the gift of this spiritual truth
comes to bless us we should, "enjoy this being washed / with a secret
we sometimes know / and then not".
(Stormy Water in The Essential Rumi 1995)
This seems to be the way of God. We remember the infinite holiness of our lives when we need it and forget it when we don't. But moments of change, transition and loss can bring a clearer vision. When the dust of ordinariness is washed away, we grasp the truth in a way no other time will grant. Rumi does not condemn this state of affairs or how easily we forget; instead he invites us to enjoy the surprises that come between the bars
If we were to ask the Beloved Son of God what His message is, He might respond, "My message is the way I live". The thoughts of His heart and the words of His mouth are in complete harmony. This makes it easier for Jesus to spot those who are not yet integrated in this way. His teaching sometimes unmasks the discordant messages and behaviour of the religious elite, and, sadly, some of those who claim to be His disciples. These people might know the 'Shema Israel' back to front and they can recite it many times a day. But the teachings have not yet found their way into their hearts. The result - hypocrisy, pretence, duplicity and violence. They say one thing but they live another. Jesus is watching.
What He sees is that selfishness has taken priority over Love. What the scribes like about being a scribe is not the blessing and challenge of the Charter for Justice. They like the superficial externals; the best robes, the best seats, the best food, the best company. They gravitate towards anything that makes them the centre of the universe. Even when they pray it is an act. They never really, genuinely open their hearts to God.
This selfishness has pushed Love for others away too. In today's Gospel, the neighbour happens to be a widow whose meagre resources are plundered by scheming scribes. In every sense, the widow is a powerful symbol of everyone in our community who is vulnerable. The vulnerable have a very special place in God's Heart (Psalm 68,5). God also makes Justice for the 'widow' a condition for residing with His people (Jer 7,6). But the most vulnerable are also powerfully attractive to abusers. Could the scene be set that the widow has come in desperation to pray to God for help? And who is there to help her with her prayers but those who claim to know the ins and outs of divine favour. And, of course, there is a fee .......
Everywhere in the Gospel Jesus champions human need over the hardened practices of the synagogues. Now He targets the Temple Treasury. When He sits opposite the treasury it becomes a symbol for all that He cannot bear about badly organised religion. The widow divests herself of all support. Her generosity plays into the devouring greed of the Temple. Those who are supposed to defend, shelter and protect her, leave her penniless. What is most frightening is that she cooperates with the exploitation - a condition often
mentioned in literature on oppression. Jesus is watching and He has already warned, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority like to be called 'benefactor' ". (Lk,22).
The oppressed often think that their oppressors are benefiting them! Is the house of God really benefiting the widow when her own house comes crashing down? Jesus called those who worked in the treasury a 'den of robbers'. Has this woman freely donated the last of her livelihood or has a subtle theft taken place? The widow might not know, but the Beloved Son of God, who is sensitive to all duplicity, has not missed it.
Jesus can spot a hypocrite very easily. The split between the inside (heart) and outside (lips=words) is a common ailment of people, especially religious people, who think they are better than everyone else. Also, it is assumed that they are aware of their condition and consciously embrace it. This makes them agents of the evil one. Only thoughtful and highly integrated people notice the gap between what is preached and what is practiced. It is difficult to see the exploitation of the widow as she stands against the huge backdrop of Temple theology and policy. Donating to the Temple is a sign of one’s sincerity and commitment. To give to the House of God is to give to God. However, the overriding concern of God is for the poor and the most vulnerable. This revelation preceded the Temple and was one of the driving forces of the Exodus from Egypt. No religious policy should create a situation where the vulnerable become even more vulnerable.
The house of the Father of orphans and widows (Ps 68,5) does not devour the houses of widows. The teaching of Jesus exposes the truth. I wonder what kind of response He will get!
In spiritual terms, 'blindness' is the inability to notice, understand and integrate sacred things with ordinary things. If we cannot do this, we are the poorest of the poor. Not to know that we are loved more than we could ever know creates a spiritual homelessness in our hearts. We become beggars. We stretch out our hands and our hearts as we long to understand the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Blind, we sit by the roadside, on the road that runs from Jericho to Jerusalem where this revelation will unfold. We need to go to Jerusalem. But only Jesus can raise us to our feet and invite us to follow Him there.
Jerusalem is the place where Gods' unconditional love will be revealed. This is the Love that will not fail. Its light will cure our darkened eyes and illuminate our darkened hearts. In our poverty, our begging becomes bolder. Obstacles must be overcome - especially those that come from other people. They are troubled by our naked desire. Our heartfelt plea for mercy offends their more moderate ways. If we persist, the One who hears all cries for mercy will come and stand before us. Anyone who begs from the heart for sight will always be heard by the clear sighted one. His call lifts us up from the ground. But still - He will test the strength of our desire.
The Beloved Son is not a magician. He is the Teacher, who wants to reveal to us the ways of God. We have always longed for this but Jesus calls for a new way of seeing. His death and resurrection are a new revelation; old eyes are blind to it. Now that He has opened our eyes, we know where we must go. There is no turning back. With new eyes we must follow Him into a new understanding. We join the others who are following Him. "They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed and those who followed were afraid." (Mark 10:32)
The need to understand the longing for the Truth which will set us free is in all of us. Those who follow their hearts desire touch the door to a mystery - a mystery to which someone else has the key. Usually, by the time we arrive at the door, our desire will have transformed us into beggars. The Son of Timeaus is driven to see and understand the revelation of the Son of David. When the Son of David hears his cry, he perceives the fury of his desire. The crowd cannot crush it. Jesus matches his passion with a summons that's brings him to his feet. Eye to eye - what a meeting! But the one with the revelation has met many who are not able to understand it. Only faith will empower this person to take the first step. Only faith will fuel his desire to go deeper.
Any great desire will transform us into beggars. In 'Zorba the Greek', Zorba tells his boss that the first time he heard the 'Sunatri'- a musical instrument - it took his breath away and he could not eat for three days. He knew he had to learn how to play it. His father berated Him. But Zorba gathered his life savings and bought a Sunatri. He then travelled to Salonica and threw himself at the feet of the Turk, Retsep Effendi. He begged him to teach him, even though he had no money. "Are you really crazy about the Sunatri?" The twenty-one year old Zorba answered, "Yes!" "Well you can stay", answered Retsep.
No amount of money can purchase our deepest desire. We must beg the Teacher to teach us. For us, as Christians, our deepest desire must be the longing to understand the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every day we must begin by asking God to heal our blindness. The Father will ask, "Are you really crazy about Jesus?"
James and John approach the Teacher. And the Teacher knows the best way to give the disciple a better understanding of their own heart is to ask them to reveal their desire(s).
As soon as Jesus hears their 'desire', He knows they don't quite understand Him yet. They want it all and all Jesus has to offer is a cup of sorrow that becomes a saving cup. His invitation to a life lived in genuine loving service to others, of suffering for the sake of justice, and of losing in order to find make it clear that death and resurrection are a package deal.
Spiritual and Social climbers tend to upset other spiritual and social climbers! The fantasy of being first has a tendency to make someone else feel they are the last. When life becomes a competition, someone looks higher than someone else. Those on top push around those beneath them. This is not the way of the new humanity which Jesus is bringing to birth.
Disciples touch their true greatness when their presence is gentle, healing, liberating, compassionate, loving and life giving - and through these activities others are set free from what hurts, debases, imprisons and kills them.
The Buddha taught that for those who are overcome by ego, suffering spreads like wild grass. Those who overcome ego open a doorway to a larger, eternal world. As they go, their steps leave no trace.
The Golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"' holds good but looks easier than it is. The invitation of the prophets - This is what God asks if you, that you act justly, that you love tenderly that you walk humbly - is even more of a challenge. But there is only one way to find out if what Jesus is saying is true and that's to dive in and try the water. This week, when as a parish community, we try to embrace a more vibrant commitment to justice, peace and social responsibility, this Teaching supports us to take the next step together and not leave it for others
The running man is eager and respectful. He is a true seeker. He calls Jesus 'Good Teacher' and he is right! But Jesus needs him to shift his focus elsewhere - to the goodness of God. Eternal life is God's gift to us. It flows from the heart of love. In this Sunday's Gospel, both seeker and disciple will receive a masterclass in how to understand God and the goodness of God.
The seeker has a problem or two! He is focused on being good in order to get the best. He lives in a world of action and reward. He has kept the commandments from his youth. He has a young person’s spirituality, all
eagerness, energy and EGO! Before Jesus takes him to the next level, He looks at him and loves him. All he has done has brought him to Jesus. He has completed step one and now step two beckons him. What Jesus is about to say is not a criticism but a leg up to the answer to his question. How does someone receive the life that flows from the goodness of God?
Suddenly Jesus starts talking about 'treasure in heaven' v.21. The thing we must prize more than anything else is our relationship with God. The path to this 'God centredness' is to let go of all that now possesses him and give it to the poor. The seeker understands but cannot believe what he is hearing! In shock and grief he turns away. Jesus sweeps a penetrating gaze towards his disciples and suggests that all who are weighed down by wealth will find it difficult to enter the kingdom of God. His disciples are first puzzled and then astonished by this. Then Jesus escalates the situation from 'difficult' to 'impossible'. Now His disciples are in shock. The Teacher waits, then makes His final thrust. He must lift them out of conventional consciousness to illumination. What is impossible for human beings is possible for God! This is the karate chop which will dismantle the obstruction and open their hearts to another Way.
The good God wants to give them eternal life and they must look to Heaven as Jesus does so often. Humans are addicted to looking everywhere else. No earthly treasure will be a ticket to eternal life. Owning and accumulating does not work in the world of the Spirit. If the heart longs for 'eternal life' it is wrongheaded in the
extreme if the heart thinks it can do this by accumulating good deeds.
Peter jumps in. "Okay, let’s not talk about this guy or other rich people. We haven’t walked away. What's in it for us?" Peter is still playing 'quid pro quo' with God. In return for his sacrifice he expects a reward. Peter is fearful of being cheated. He may have left everything but his mind has not. Jesus addresses his fear with comic exaggeration. All you have given will be returned with interest - the good God is not stingy. But the spiritual law still applies - If you want to be first, you will be last. But if you are last, thereby opening yourself to the goodness of God, you will be first. Every blessing has to be received as a free gift.
The drive to assuage insecurity can be ruthless. It can make us extremely self-absorbed and, worse still, it leads to terrible injustices. Even worse, we may tolerate injustice and cruelty as long as we benefit from them! Couple the moral defects which come with the drive to accumulate, with spiritual ignorance, and the whole project is doomed to failure. Accumulation is futile in the face of death. Temporal life is insecure by its very nature. No strategy within time will ever change that.
In Anthony de Mellos' 'The Song of the Bird', there is a great little Parable about holding onto life with an open hand.
In the 19th century an American tourist visited the famous Polish Rabbi Hafez Hayyim. He was astonished to see that the Rabbis' home was only a simple room filled with books. The only furniture, a table and a bench. 'Rabbi, where is your furniture?' asked the tourist. 'Where is yours?' Replied Hafez. 'Mine? But I'm only a visitor here'.
'So am I," said the Rabbi.
As someone who dances to the rhythms of time and eternity, we must live in time but have our eyes fixed on heaven. This will turn our lives around, we will instantly cure ourselves of anxiety and the desire to have power over others. We must not delude ourselves. Even while we have possessions, we must disown them. We cannot allow them to own us in such a way that they close our hearts to the suffering of others or to the astonishing generosity and goodness of God. to edit.
It is interesting that Jesus does not engage in questions about divorce. When is it possible? What are good reasons to do it? How should property be divided? For Jesus, divorce is a symptom of human immaturity. It is a 'breakdown' in relationship. Friends are lost, communion is lost. The One who came to restore creation wants it otherwise.
When people choose to separate, they tend to focus on the surface of things, to break connection and become detached. Spiritually mature people work to build community and have a huge impact on the world of breakdown and separation. As Martin Buber said, "The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap". (The Sphere of the In-Between)
For Jesus, marriage is the most beautiful symbol of this overlap. Two are not two, but One. The cause of this joining, and it's destiny, is the love of loves that is drawn from the wellspring of Gods heart. Divorce is the culmination of an inability to do this. Individuals break and then break away from each other. This is also a breaking away of the surface from the depths. This happens because their hearts have been broken or hardened. A person who is turned in on their self cannot melt, flow and merge. Jesus, the second Adam,(1 Cor 15) wants all life to be healed and permeated by the truth of communion, the truth of 'the Garden'. This presents a huge challenge for His disciples and for the community of disciples - the church. How do we become relational artists? How do we nurture the physical, social, moral, psychological and spiritual maturity of a person which makes them ready for this depth of living?
I recently came across this poem. It is not about marriage but about a lost relationship. I thought it was beautiful and I hope you do too. It is written by a father who gave his son up for adoption because he was unable to look after him. It is called,
THINGS NOT SAID
Things not said, advice not given, envelopes unstamped, regrets enveloping me.
Is it easier there? I wonder. I ponder. I guess yes. I guess - yes.
Do you think of me as I do of you my son, my son, my son.
The things you'll do, I'll never know the pain, the secrets.
Oh, to be given a chance, a start, the restart, the fresh start.
Will love come for you as it did for me? Find you, wreck you, save you, change you?
And if life breaks for you, the way that it would not break for me,
If love hunts you, finds you, captures you,
Will you hold it tight, nurture it, protect it.
I hope you will. I hope you can.
This fathers advice is not required. It has no call.
So instead I'll share some from another.
It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.
And now an addendum to my earlier advice.
If I am so lucky as to still have your ear.
I love you.
I lost you.
And I advised you, 'Twas better than to never having loved at all.
But now with more years
With more time and more perspective
I see things in a slightly new way.
So here my good son is a fathers advice
Updated and recalled.
It is better to have loved and lost - surely!
try not to lose it at all
Salt is a symbol of the highest value. It is a treasure of incalculable worth, so excellent that, if its flavour is lost, nothing higher can restore it. In the Gospel, 'Salt' is the symbol for the works of Peace. Jesus final exhortation for those who desire to be great is, 'Have salt in yourself and be at peace with one another'. (v.50)
Jesus, the Teacher, has told His disciples that their desire to be 'great' will sabotage the work of the Kingdom. But they have not understood, or integrated, this teaching. In their defence, this is not an easy thing to do. Now they are reacting to an exorcist who does not belong to their inner circle. He is immediately seen as a threat. They guard their turf against anyone who might steal their sense of self-importance. They are so competitive, they do not even see the ones who have been liberated. The fact that a sister, or a brother, has been freed does not enter their minds. They have become, in their own minds, a tight knit power group. When good is being done, and they do not benefit, they want to stop it.
The fact that they 'tried' to stop it may indicate that they failed. Now they want Jesus to intervene. But Jesus, as usual, has a different vision of what is happening. His heart is set first on the coming of the Kingdom. Anyone who is helping that happen is a welcome guest. They are part of the family because they are doing the Fathers will. He urges His disciples to be more generous. All are for them, unless they prove otherwise. Until people exhibit hostility and hold values that go counter to the new humanity, they should be welcomed as allies. Disciples must not exclude anyone.
'Servants of the Kingdom' includes those who offer welcome, hospitality and who perform small acts of kindness. They should not be overlooked. Those who want to “Lord it” over others sabotage the Kingdom and might make those who do the little things question if what they do has any value. For Jesus, the little ones will not lose their reward. Their welcome, their hospitality, their kindness stand shoulder to shoulder with the great acts of teaching, preaching and exorcising.
The best way for disciples to avoid causing hurt or scandal is to eliminate the causes in themselves. The drive to be great, to save our self, to have power over others or to harm others in order to save ourselves are the ways of the world. They are second nature. They are like a hand, an eye or a foot. If disciples choose to serve, to losing their lives for the sake of the Kingdom, being least of all and servant of all and not harming others, there must be clarity about what is at stake and a commitment to whatever surgery is needed to remain faithful. When disciples amputate from their hearts whatever is preventing them from entering life, the fire of damnation becomes a purifying fire. The emphasis here is clearly on what is kept and not on what is lost.
The desire to be great is in us all. We weigh everything, and probably everyone, in terms of whether they promote or diminish us. The craving to be promoted and not diminished might drive and steer the course of our day to day lives! We see examples of this all around us. Hierarchies are everywhere and become the benchmark of how we are doing. So how can Jesus command us to make ourselves last of all? He can't. He has to add one last piece to the jigsaw if disciples are not to become resenting servants. Disciples must come to understand why Service is the only true greatness.
Sam Keen (To a Dancing God [New York: Harper & Row,1970]17), was asking the question, 'What can I do to give my life meaning, dignity, density?’ In response he wrote, "The answer came suddenly jumping up and down in my mind with the force of an obvious fact long denied. I woke one night in Manhattan with the words, 'Nothing, Nothing,' on my lips. As I started to laugh at the comedy of my seriousness, my vertigo began to subside. I saw that I had been obsessed with the wrong question. In the face of uncertainty of life and the certainty of death, no
human act or project could render existence meaningful or secure ... Either dignity and meaningfulness come with the territory or they must forever be absent. Sanctity is given with being. It is not earned".
This is so true! And Jesus with absolute clarity teaches this. He asks us to imagine the worst possible thing that could happen to us. Then adds that it doesn't come close to the horror of extinguishing the light of love in another person’s heart. The stakes are indeed very high. Very high indeed!
Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, does not seek fame and recognition. He does not want to be the centre of attention. As he travels with His disciples He wants to avoid notice. This is especially true when He is teaching His disciples about the fate of the new humanity. It is a difficult teaching. His disciples are puzzled by it. But it is blunt
enough: the Son of Man is guided by the hand of God, but He will be killed by human hands. They hear the words, but can the disciples understand what He is saying? Their minds and hearts are still bound to the 'Things of the Human' and not the 'Things of God'. They want to avoid suffering and pursue high status. As they are so deeply self-centred, they are naturally afraid of losing. They are so afraid, they won't even ask Jesus to expand on His theme. Instead .....
On the way, they were having an argument - the same old one that is around today. Who is the greatest? Jesus, the Teacher, sits down and gathers the Twelve, who will guide the new humanity (notice there were others there too, since a child is at hand as a prop). For Jesus, the Great are those who engage and work with the Fathers Love. These are not interested in their own status. Rather, the new humanity goes out to meet all and to lift their basic humanity to a new level. And so, those who would be first do not seek their own glory, but the health and wellbeing (salvation) of others. How it is with God, who is the first and the greatest, should be how it is with all who seek to be the first and the greatest.
We have to be careful here that our all too human mindset does not doctor the teaching of Jesus to make it fit our own purposes. We might tell ourselves that we have to endure a period of doing 'lowly stuff' in order to get to the higher stuff. If being a servant is the quickest route to being the greatest, then we will be servants! But all the while we will be thinking that we are in reality better than everyone else. It's hard for disciples to let Jesus break open the meaning of 'first' and 'greatest' and fill it with a new meaning. They sidestep Him and renegotiate the terms. Consider Luke's ironic suggestion, 'When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. That they cannot repay you means you are blessed, and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous'.(Lk 14:13-14)
Jesus places a child in the heart of them. The child is a tragic and eternal symbol of the powerlessness which many will seek to exploit. Jesus, in setting the child before them as their spiritual director, commands a mystical transformation to the mindset of his disciples. It goes something like this .....
When we begin with the least we subvert the normal ranks of society. Those at the top - the rich - are refusing invitations because they receive too many. Those at the bottom are excluded. At first glance, it seems they have nothing to offer. But, when we say that the path to the Fathers heart goes through the welcome we offer to those whom no one else will invite, we undercut the world and turn everything on its head.
Furthermore, the word least has another meaning. In this meaning it can be applied to the socially least and the socially most. Dag Hammarskjold once said, " People comment of Jesus' lack of moral principles. He sat at table with publicans and sinners and consorted with harlots. Did He do this to obtain their votes? Or did He think that,
perhaps, He could convert them by such appeasement? Or was His humanity rich and deep enough, to make contact, even in them, with what in human nature is common to all people, indestructible beauty, and upon which the future has to be built?" (Markings, p.157)
Here is the great breakthrough. The naked face of our shared humanity reveals the face of God to all. This is what is most beautiful and most valuable. It is the greatest and the first precisely because it is the least. When we make ourselves the servants of this last, welcoming what is common to all and excluding none of it, we find ourselves strangely in pole position.
CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST JOSEPH & ST MARGARET CLITHEROW
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1BE (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1BE (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871