Sunday, September 30, 2018

Room Enough for All

Jealousy - as Britain’s Queen Alexandra famously said in 1910 - is the source of so many problems in life.

Well, you hardly need me to tell you that – or that there is plenty of jealousy in the world, or what its causes are. Evidently, there was plenty of it in the Gospel story we just heard [Mark 9:38-43, 47-48] – as illustrated by the apostles’ angry reaction to the unnamed “someone” they had caught casting out devils in Jesus’ name – as well as in the Old Testament story of Joshua’s jealous reaction to Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp [Numbers 11:25-29]. I think we can all recognize some of ourselves in the behavior of both Joshua and Jesus’ apostles – the first Bishops of the Church. Jesus’ startling response – like that of Moses before him – seems to go against what we should all recognize as one of our most ordinary and deeply embedded patterns of human behavior, being part of a group.

As we have been hearing now for the past several Sundays, Jesus had, for some time now, been instructing his followers 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 future first Bishops of Jesus’ Church just didn’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!

Like members of any adolescent prep-school clique, college fraternity, or any other exclusive group at any age, the apostles seemed 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. That sounds a lot like us, like our American society today, doesn’t it?

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 is who we are. It expresses what we want and determines how we act – in our families, in our relationships, in our careers, in our country, in our churches, 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, and about our group, which is just a collective version of our obsession about ourselves.

And, of course, all those things that we want so much all come in limited quantities. That presumably is a big part of their appeal, what makes them so attractive and desirable. To the extent that I get a lot, someone else gets less, little, or nothing at all. That is the heart of our 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 today’s 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, which can only work when people are willing to limit their desires and allow others to get their share.

The kingdom of God, however, 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.

Like the apostles, our natural inclination is to spend our energy vainly competing to accumulate more and more – tangible goods like wealth, power, security, and status, and those equally elusive if less tangible ones like affirmation, respect, and love. Jesus, however, is challenging us, as he challenged his apostles (and 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 the way God does.

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 30, 2018.

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