True Greatness, Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), October 22, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
29th Sunday of OT, Year B
October 22, 2006
Is 53:10-11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45

1) There is a huge contrast in today’s Gospel between two types of greatness and two types of ambition seeking it. The first is that shown by James and John at the beginning of the scene. They came to Jesus and presumptuously instructed him, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus might have been special in their eyes with his power, but they wanted him to use his power for their own benefit. When Jesus asked, “What do you wish for me to do for you,” they replied, “Grant to us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” They aspired to be Jesus’ right-and-left-hand men by the simple fact they asked for it. They wanted to be above other the other ten apostles and everyone else as well. Little did they know that God the Father had determined that two crucified thieves had been chosen to be at Jesus’ right and left as he entered his kingdom!

2) The second type of greatness and aspiration was described by Jesus at the end of the Gospel passage. After the other ten got ticked off at the power-loving pretension of the sons of Zebedee, Jesus called the twelve together and said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.” He who is the Way showed them the path to greatness and the means to become truly number one. Jesus wants us all to be great, not mediocre. I’ll say it again: he wants you and me to become excel, to get on the eternal high honor roll. He came down from heaven, died and rose in order to make it possible for each of us to get an A-plus with the gift of life, not a D-minus and God forbid not an F. During the Sermon on the Mount, he urged us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and he wasn’t exaggerating or calling us to something that with his help is impossible (Mt 5:45). Over and over again he stressed that he wants us to “strive,” to “seek,” to “burn,” to “hunger and thirst” for greatness (Mt 5:6; Mt 6:32-33; Lk 12:30; Lk 12:49; Lk 13:24)

3) But the greatness to which he wants us to aspire has nothing to do with some type of terrestrial pecking-order. Real greatness, he describes, is to become most like him, to share in his greatness, in his divine holiness, in his total self-giving love. Twenty times in the Gospel Jesus told his disciples, “follow me!,” and in today’s Gospel Jesus was telling them that the path to greatness is to do what he himself was doing: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.” St. Paul would later describe to the Philippians (Phil 2:3-11) that Christ’s example was the stairway to heaven when he called on them to imitate it: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” This safe-abasing loving service was at the root of Christ’s greatness, St. Paul continued: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

4) Jesus Christ would put these words about serving other rather than being served into action during the celebration of the first Mass. During the celebration of the Last Supper on the night he would be betrayed, Jesus stood up, took off his outer garment, tied a towel around his waist, and began to wash literally the crap off his disciples’ feet, which was a menial task normally done by servants and slaves. The apostles, naturally, resisted Jesus’ debasing himself in this way. After he was finished, Jesus said, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me teacher and Lord — and rightly so, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Amen, amen I tell you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (Jn 13:5-17). Real greatness in Christ’s kingdom would not be determined by fighting for seats at tables, but by fighting for the towel. The highest would not be the one to whom others would lift glasses in toasts but the one who would be able to drink the cup of Christ’s blood — “Can you drink of the cup I am to drink?” — and in turn say to others with Christ, “this is my blood, shed for you.” To be number one would not be decided by sharing Christ’s power, but by sharing Christ’s love. Christ’s cabinet would be filled not by those who would kiss his butt, but by those who would put their own butts on the line for Him and for others, by being baptized into Christ’s death through their own suffering and death. Christ, pointing to his baptism by blood on the Cross, said “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Lk 12:50) and this was what he was referring to when he asked John, James and whoever else wished to be great in his kingdom “Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?”

5) John and James and the other apostles were chosen by Jesus because, even though they were simple, they had a desire for greatness, but their conceptions of greatness and their means needed to be transformed. This metamorphosis between worldly ambition and Christ-like ambition happened in James and John and in the lives of the other apostles when Christ showed them that the path to prominence was not lined with glitter but rather than thorns. It wasn’t an easy conversion for them, but it was one that 11 of the 12 of them made. They drank Christ’s cup, they were baptized into his death and now are seated at his right in heaven. Christ wants all of us to undergo the same transformation. He wants all of us to desire greatness, and to follow him on the path of self-emptying loving service, which the apostles chose, which the saints chose, and which stands before us today.

6) This paradox of the path to greatness — that the humble are exalted and the self-exalted humbled (Lk 14:11), that the first will be last and the last will be first (Mk 10:31), that greatness is shown in washing others’ feet rather than having authority over them —is something the world doesn’t understand. This point was driven home to me in my first year of seminary in Rome. Brian Murphy, the Associated Press’ Rome correspondent, got our rector’s permission to shadow six first-theologians around for a year, to write a book about the various issues involved in the transition from the “world” into the life of preparation for the priesthood. I was one of the six “new men” chosen. About midway through the year, many of Brian’s preconceptions were being shattered and he who described himself as a “born-and-fled” Catholic was beginning to experience a conversion. There was one thing in particular, however, he couldn’t grasp and he came to me in the hope that I could explain it to him; he saw it as at least a paradox if not an outright contradiction. The seminarians sent to Rome, he said, were generally considered the “best and brightest,” and the North American College was popularly referred to as the “West Point” of Seminaries, and had the reputation as the “Vatican’s Elite School for American Priests.” A large percentage of the U.S. bishops, he said, are alumni of the College. But he stated that everybody seemed to downplay and be outright embarrassed by these terms of exaltation. When he asked whether they desired to be bishops, they all said no, and that just did not make any sense to him. In journalism, he confessed, most people start out as copy editors desiring to become reporters. Once they become reporters, they aspire to become editors. Once editors, they hope to move up the ladder still, as editor-in-chief or achieve other positions of authority. He couldn’t figure out why young talented men in the seminary could honestly tell him that they’d be happy the rest of their lives to remain at the “entry level” as parish priests. Why wouldn’t they all want to become monsignors, or bishops, or cardinals or even the Pope? He added that when he asked young men this question, most treated it as if there was something wrong in desiring ecclesiastical preferment. He summed up his question by asking: “Is there any place for ambition in the Church?”

7) I answered that there are two types of ambition in the Church, one bad and one good. The first is for self-aggrandizement; the second a Christ-like zeal for souls. To the extent that the first exists within the Church, Christ’s goals are often thwarted as particular people in the Church seek to build their own kingdom rather than the Lord’s. But when a priest or a lay person is filled with the a zeal for souls, Christ’s kingdom is normally advanced. I told him that one of the greatest illustrations of this teaching was found in the life of perhaps the greatest pope who ever lived, St. Gregory the Great (590-604). When he signed his letters, unlike previous popes who used the expressions “the vicar of Christ,” “the bishop of Rome,” “pontifex maximus” (the greatest bridge-builder between heaven and earth), or “the successor of St. Peter,” Gregory signed his letters, “Gregorius, Servus servorum Dei,” “Gregory, the Servant of the Servants of God.” And he earned that title, giving all he had in service to Christ’s flock, each of whom is called to be the servant of God. For Gregory, the Church hierarchy was founded by the Lord to be a “lower-archy,” to be a ladder of service. Those who have been invested by the Lord with greater responsibilities are called by the Lord to serve the rest and help them to serve others. They’re called never to “lord it over others,” but to love others as Christ has loved us, serving them in the same self-giving way with which the Lord has served us. For Christ, to reign is to serve. He came not to be served but to serve and to give his life in exchange for others’. Anyone who wishes to reign with Christ must do the same. All of us, like Gregory, are called to become servants of all the servants of God — and this will be the means by which others after us, and most importantly the Lord, will call us “great,” just like we call Gregory.

8 ) Today we mark World Missionary Sunday and missionaries are some of the clearest examples of those who have heard these words of Christ and acted upon them. They have left the comforts of their homes, their families, their food, their language, their televisions, their internet, their air-conditioning or heating, their electricity and their running water to go to the ends of the earth to serve others in love. They teach others about the truth and love of the Gospel in body-language, opening up not just churches, but schools, hospitals and clinics, food pantries, and so much more. They wash others’ feet in thousands of little ways. Today is a weekend on which we pray for them in particular and sacrifice financially for them, so that they can continue in the name of Christ and of the Church to be the Good Samaritans to whole populaces.

9) It is also a day on which everyone of us is called to remember that the New Bedford area is meant to be our missionary land, our Papua New Guinea, our Honduras, our Guatemala, our northern Alaska. By our baptism and especially by our confirmation, each of us has been commissioned by Christ to spread his Gospel. The best means of evangelization, far more powerful than the most brilliant apologetic presentations, is the Christ-like example of service. We’re called to love others as Christ has loved us and love is not a feeling, but a choice, a choice to place others ahead of us, a choice to lay down our lives for others (Jn 15:13), a choice to imitate Christ’s example in washing others feet, doing even the most menial tasks to help them. This is where, in the final analysis, we will either become great or become or remain, frankly, a loser. There are four contexts in which the transformation from worldly ambition to Christ-like ambition is meant to be seen.

a. The first is at home. Christ gives us the family as a school of love, of service, but many times, troubles come when husbands seek to boss their wives around rather than serve them, when wives think more about what their husbands or kids should be doing for them rather than they can be doing for others, when parents rule their kids with an iron fist rather than with a towel, and kids wish to be served by their parents rather than do anything to love them unless they’re asked repeatedly or threatened with punishment. Many of you probably had St. Paul’s Canticle of Love as the second reading for your nuptial Mass, in which St. Paul told you to “be ambitious for the greatest gifts” and then showed you the path of genuine love which is shown in service. You will be patient, kind, never envious or boastful or arrogant or rude or irritable or resentful. You will not insist on your own way or rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. You will be bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. If that does not yet mark your family life, it is because the higher gift of Christ-like love has not yet pervade the walls of your home, and this weekend Christ wants to bring about a transformation. The family is the first context in which all of us are called to serve others rather than be served by them.

b. The second context is school. Catholic schools in particular are supposed to teach children the most important lessons, how to succeed in life, how to become truly great in God’s eyes and pass the final exam of life. Sometimes, though, the cancer of this-worldly ideas can give counter-lessons, when teachers stop going the extra-mile for their students, when faculty members lose their sense of mission and begin to focus mainly on their rights and complain, when students compete excessively against their colleagues rather than help them as friends to learn the material, when they distract other students through bad example and fail to lift a finger to try to serve the teachers and help them do their mission well. In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls everyone in education back to the truth that the most educated person is really the one who serves all the rest.

c. Work is the third context. All of us have the vocation to work, in which we not only make “something” but form “someone,” namely ourselves. Some people have great jobs and love to go to work; others dread it. Normally people begin to hate their jobs in places where employers and employees have forgotten what Christ teaches us today. These are places when employers have forgotten the human dignity of their employees and instead of helping them to learn how to do their job better, criticize them, where instead of helping them incorporate their responsibilities on the job within the context of their larger responsibilities to God and to their families, force them to have to choose or risk losing their jobs. These are places where employees just look at what they’re doing as a “job,” rather than as a means to serve others by providing some product that others need; where they fail to love their fellow employees and help them to excel at their job, because they think that the way to get ahead is by stepping on others rather than by washing their feet. Christ calls Christian employers and employees to be the leaven of their work-places by means of today’s Gospel.

d. The last context I’ll mention today is the parish — A parish either thrives or dies based largely on whether priests and parishioners both act on Christ’s words in today’s Gospel. Sometimes priests can destroy a parish when they forget that they’re called to serve the rest and instead begin haughtily and arrogantly to seek their own will and comforts. Rather than being icons of Christ drawing people to the Lord, they become a counter-gospel and drive people away. Lay people can generally determine readily whether a priest is a “servant” or a “lord,” whether he seeks their good or his own, whether he wants to lead them to eternal happiness through the Cross or earthly pleasure through the finest restaurants and secular activities. But a parish will also live and die based on whether parishioners seek to serve or be served. The most active and alive parish I ever saw was a stewardship parish in which every parishioner was expected to give, and did give, on average two hours a week — 100 hours a year — in service to his fellow brothers and sisters in the parish and the wider community. The parish only had about 350 families, but the apostolates they had blew out of the water parishes that had ten times as many families, because no one sought to pass the buck. They all sought to serve rather than be served and whenever the pastor made a request for volunteers, he generally had more than he needed. On the other hand, a parish is on its spiritual death bed when the opposite occurs, when parishioners hear the call for volunteers and think it’s directed not to them but to others, when they choose to let others do the work rather than take responsibility on their own and seek to serve others, even when it requires the lowliest of tasks like Christ demonstrated in the Last Supper. Our parish bazaar is taking place in two weeks and there is a huge need for volunteers, for those who seek to progress on the path of genuine greatness that Jesus describes today.

10) Christ wants us to be great and today he shows us how. The greatest illustration he gives us of the path to greatness is here in the Mass, our participation in time in the eternal offering of Christ in the Last Supper and on Calvary. When Jesus humbly bent down at the beginning of the Mass to wash his followers’ feet, he was just getting started. Later he would abase himself even further, changing bread and wine into his body and blood so that we, his servants, could consume him and live off of him. This is the chalice he places before us to drink, to which offer he hopes we will respond with as much trust and zeal as John and James. He not only wants us to receive his self-gift of loving service in the Eucharist, but he wants us to make it the path of our life. He simplifies everything he’s taught us today about the path to true greatness in the words he will say again to us in a few minutes: “Do THIS in memory of me!”