Sunday, October 21, 2012

True Greatness

One of my favorite movies from the early 1990s that I enjoy seeing over again is Quiz Show - a film about the TV Quiz Show scandal of the late 1950s. Being old enough to remember the actual events, the movie’s main initial appeal for me when I first saw it was largely nostalgia. Beyond nostalgia, however, every time I see the film, I’m impressed by how well it portrays a certain social pecking order that virtually everyone (especially those less favored in that hierarchy) accepted and affirmed. Thus, the hero, Richard Goodwin, is portrayed as so mesmerized by the very personification of status and privilege, Charles VanDoren, that he goes out of his way to try not to have to hold him accountable for his dishonesty, while less glamorous (and hence less favored) characters are depicted as so much less deserving of sympathy. Clearly, rich and prominent people just feel entitled to their privileged status, and the less privileged accept this and often cater to it. Of course, to know that about our society, one need only tune in the news.

When it comes to human behavior, there really does seem to be nothing new under the sun.  In today’s Gospel [Mark 10:35-45], Jesus has again just told his disciples what lies in store for him when he gets to Jerusalem. The 1st time Jesus did this, Peter had tried to talk him out of it, prompting a severe reprimand and a no-nonsense instruction on what being a disciple really means. The 2nd time, the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask him. Instead, they argued among themselves, discussing which of them was the greatest. When asked by Jesus what they had been arguing about, they remained silent, which suggests at least some sense of embarrassment. This time, however, with no hint of embarrassment, James and John, two of Jesus’ most favored disciples (and thus the ones most especially susceptible to an attitude of entitlement), responded to Jesus’ 3rd prediction of his impending death, with their startling request to sit with him in glory, one at his right and the other at his left.

Apparently, the other 10, neither accepted nor were willing to cater to the status hierarchy proposed by James and John. Jealousy (as Britain’s Queen Alexandra famously said some 102 years ago) is the source of so many problems in life. So, the 10 became indignant when they heard this – their jealous indignation prompting in turn yet another instruction from Jesus, clarifying both what his life was about and what that of any would-be disciple of his must therefore also be about.

What makes this incident so fascinating is the brilliant way Jesus handled his hard-to-teach disciples – both the 2 ambitious brothers and the 10 jealous others. Jesus was obviously a very good teacher. He recognized his disciples’ natural ambition. Rather than just condemning them outright, he affirmed their ambition and then gave it new content.

So you want to be great, Jesus tells his disciples. Okay, then, be great – but not by imitating all those powerful, prominent people you all admire & envy so much, but by imitating me. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How’s that for an ambition to aspire to, an accomplishment to envy?

If following Jesus as his disciple, as a Christian, is to have any real meaning in this world, Jesus is telling us, then it must be different with us from the way it is with the rest of the world. Among other things, it means siding with those whom Cardinal Dolan at this past Thursday’s annual Al Smith Dinner in New York called the uns - "the un mployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the innocent fragile unborn baby in her womb, the undocumented, the unhoused, the unhealthy, the unfed, the under-educated."

By his own life - and above all by his death - Jesus illustrated that by showing how different it is with him from the way it tends to be with us. Our task is not to analyze the world, which is just being the way the world is, but to change the world, by changing ourselvesconfidently approaching the throne of grace to receive mercy and help from our great high priest who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin [Hebrews 4:14-16].

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 21, 2012.

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