Sunday, September 30, 2012

No Limits

Jealousy (as Britain’s Queen Alexandra famously said 102 years ago) is the source of so many problems in life.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you that – or that there is plenty of jealousy in the world. And, evidently, there was plenty of it around in the Gospel story we just heard [Mark 9:38-43, 47-48] – as evidenced by the disciples’ angry reaction to the unnamed “someone” they had caught casting out devils in Jesus’ name, as well as in the earlier Old Testament story highlighting Joshua’s jealous reaction to Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp. I think we can all recognize some of ourselves in the behavior of both Joshua and Jesus’ disciples. Jesus’ startling response – like that of Moses before him – seems to go against what we can all recognize as one of our most ordinary and deeply embedded patterns of human behavior.

As we have been hearing now for the past several Sundays, Jesus has been instructing his disciples for some time about what was going to happen when they got to Jerusalem – and what that experience should translate into in terms of their own attitudes. Yet the impression one gets over and over again – in the Gospels as in ordinary life, when things get repeated over and over, there is usually a reason, an instructional purpose – the impression one gets is that the disciples just don’t get it. On the contrary, we see them again focused on themselves, on being insiders, on being important members of a prestigious and powerful inner circle – powerful enough, presumably, at least to make it through life with both hands, both feet, and both eyes intact!

Like members of any adolescent clique (or any adult one), the disciples seem obsessed with distinguishing who’s in from who’s out, who’s up from who’s down, who’s rich from who’s poor, who’s smart from who’s dumb, who dresses well from who doesn’t, who’s cool from who’s not - and equally obsessed with having it all without having to sacrifice anything, let alone a hand, a foot, or an eye. Sound familiar?

Of course, in the world we human beings have built for ourselves, our world works best by building barriers, something we are forever doing at every level. That’s who we are. It expresses what we want and determines how we act – in our relationships, in our careers, whatever.

The good news of the Gospel is that by his life (and above all by his death) Jesus has liberated us from this deep-seated, but ultimately enslaving and self-destructive need to be forever comparing ourselves, to be forever in competition, to be forever keeping score, counting our possessions and calculating our coolness. Jesus challenges us to free ourselves from this unending universal human obsession about ourselves, about us.

And, of course, all those things we want for ourselves all come in limited quantities. That’s presumably a big part of their appeal. To the extent that I get a lot, someone else gets less, a little, or nothing at all. That’s the essential reality of economic and political life, which is why economic and political life are so largely about conflict, because the reality is that there really is never enough of all the stuff we want – certainly not enough for everyone! And, as the 2nd Reading [James 5:1-6] reminds us, those at the top of the economic pyramid tend to try to guarantee that it stays that way.  So the perennial task of economic systems and governments is to figure out how most satisfactorily to allocate all those scarce, limited benefits that we all so desire.

The kingdom of God, however, is not like that and has no such limits. It has room enough for all of us. It’s the ultimate (and perhaps the only) genuinely “win-win” situation. But it also entails a completely novel and completely unique notion of what winning means, enabling us to accomplish mighty deeds in God’s name, transforming our “lose-lose” world into something we would otherwise never have been able even to imagine.

So, while we would all much rather spend our energy vainly competing to accumulate more hands, more feet, more eyes – tangible ones like wealth, power, and status, and those equally elusive if less tangible ones like affirmation, respect, and love – as if our lives were ever really our own, Jesus is challenging us (as only he can) to feel, to walk, and to see our way through life with his hands, his feet, and his eyes – and so to feel, to walk, and to see things his way.

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 30, 2012.

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