29th Sunday of the Year
Reflections on the readings…
In recent weeks, Jesus has taken us on a journey towards Jerusalem whilst instructing his disciples about what it means to follow him. Today, we face the difficult changes necessary to be an authentic follower of Jesus. Jesus turns human assumptions about what really matters on its head; ‘greatness’ is measured in God’s reign by ‘service.’ This is the message he embodied. In the upside-down (or right-side up) Reign of God, greatness is defined differently to the power, fame and fortune criteria most human systems use. In God’s reign, ‘greatness’ is found in the role of a ‘servant,’ as exemplified and embodied in Jesus: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve….’ Which, finally will cause him to ‘give his life as a ransom for many.’
Mark relates one of Jesus’ more counterintuitive messages that often comes up in his teachings: that the greatest among us are not those who rule over others, but serve. This changed three centuries after Jesus’ Resurrection, when the community of disciples adopted the shape of the shape of the Roman Empire. Leaders had special designations, special titles, special garments, and power over people. It persists in many places. It is encouraging that we can still honour people, who give themselves in service of others, as leaders use their power for self-aggrandisement, corporate executives that amass huge fortunes, or celebrities become addicted to their own fame and influence. Though told to strive for greatness, Jesus says the opposite. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the difficult work conditions of nurses, teachers and home carers’ work and indirect care activities like cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes being unrecognised and unpaid. The unpaid care sector is the largest sector of the economy. Women and girls do most work and are from socially disadvantaged groups. COVID-19 has shown us that even if markets collapse, the care economy continues to function and we have come to see that it is perhaps the most fundamental and important part of the economy. The care sector will only increase as elderly populations in most countries grow. We have been made aware of the value of people who bring food to our door, drive transport vehicles, nurses and care for the aged. Jesus told us that it is those who serve should receive greater respect. This message often falls on deaf ears. We can hope that Covid-19 help to rebuild a better system where people who serve and care are recognised.
The greatest healing to the world is achieved by heroic women and men. The temptation to seek an important ministry, organisation, impact or influence can lead to arrogance where others can be manipulated and dominated according our agendas. We need a culture of ‘greatness’ that celebrates self-giving, humility, service and small acts of contribution to the greater good. The creation of this culture begins with us when we choose to embrace and celebrate the humble, serving people around us.
Today, we are asked to reflect on the power we have that does not take account of its consequences for others. This is behind some of the attacks on Pope Francis. He is attacked on all sides, often from within the church, for ‘proclaiming the good news of Jesus. The basis of these attacks arise from his constant emphasis on love and mercy; from encouragement to understand the importance of celebrating the grace in life before condemning failures and irregularities; and deferring judgment in favour of encouragement or invitation. This not new. We remember Oscar Romero who was not supported by some Church leaders when he condemned violence abuse of power and accumulation of wealth. The opposition to Pope Francis is because like Jesus he seems to be undermining their precious vision of the law and subverting the power over ordinary people. Jesus’ words to the disciples, ‘You know that those who are recognised as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt’ still apply. Jesus has up-turned the value of power in favour of service, ‘But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ If the disciples had really listened to Jesus, they would have known that being close to him in his ‘glory’ meant being close to him in his humiliation, suffering and death. They would not have asked about sitting in seats of power. Today we see clericalism that obstructs genuine leadership, being close to hurting and wounded people. It occurs in diocesan offices and exercised by many ‘non-clerical’ employees. Genuine leadership serves and stands alongside people where they can grow and also become ‘servants.’ It is by having the heart of a servant that enables us to be like the One (cf. Hebrews) who is touched by our infirmities, able to sympathise with our weaknesses and be not aloof from pain and suffering. This is not always possible from positions of power and privilege. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that Christians stand by God when God grieves: when God is poor, scorned, homeless and hungry, suffer under the weight of the powerful. He critiqued the Christianity that seeks the protection of status and power yet avoids the cross. In the Philippines, and elsewhere, politicians are jockeying for power in the run-up to the 2022 elections. We have seen this grab for power for decades. It has prevented many from coming near to those closest to God’s heart and acting on their behalf: the poor who are oppressed, Indigenous peoples who are continually deprived of their ancestral lands, displaced farmers, hungry people, and attacks with impunity on people who raise their voices for justice during the ‘drug war’ for the last five years. Many in the Philippines such as lawyers, teachers, community and religious leaders pay a high price for this. Those who come nearer God’s heart share the ache in that heart for humanity.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus declares, ‘Whoever is near me is near the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the Reign of God.’ ‘Whoever is near me is near the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the Reign of God’. Jesus’ way requires us to be in solidarity with the afflicted, the wounded, the bruised and brutalised, the ones led astray, the oppressed - the prisoner, the asylum seeker, the homeless person, the struggling young person, the person living with mental illness. Last week I quoted a minister who said that the church should go to hell. His meaning was that it should go to the hell-holes of the world to be with people who are dying, suffering, perishing, oppressed. This cannot be done from positions of power and privilege.).
God’s sacred image in our sisters and brothers cries out for response. To choose to ignore the truth by closing our eyes or ears is to fail to appreciate the consequence of the ‘baptism’ Jesus asks of us. We have been given a power in the gospel: a power for life, life for others…. We must use it. We need to flesh out the tenets of our faith in acts for justice and human rights. We need to stand in solidarity at the places where violence is taking place around us. Poverty, hardship, disaster, pain and suffering are never God’s will, but that God is the first to weep when these occur – and hierarchy, domination and control are not part of his plan. William Sloane Coffin, a pastor of Riverside Church in New York in the late 1970s, had been active in the civil rights movement and antiwar demonstrations, was arrested a number of times for his actions. When his son died in a car accident, someone tried to comfort him with the cliché, ‘It is God’s will’. Coffin responded, ‘The hell it is! When my boy was killed, God was the first who cried’ (Peter Gomes, The Good Book, HarperCollins, San Francisco: 1996).
The gospel today gives us hope. God’s Spirit continues to be given despite our failures, and surprisingly today, each day, we are again sent to the world and challenged to learn what real prominence in Jesus’ Reign is: service and self-giving. God has a dream for us ….it is a dream that we will all fall in love - in love with Jesus present in ourselves, others and in creation - a love that will cause us to be passionate about our sisters and brothers and contribute a world of hospitality and compassion. It might begin with the influence of an attentive parent, grandparent or teacher. It might begin with the small act of kindness – even unrequited - shown in our neighbourhoods and communities, especially that bus driver, lonely person sitting at the bus stop or in the mall. In the words of the prophet Micah: ‘And what does the Lord require of you? Only this: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’