Monday, May 16, 2016

"WHO SHALL BE GREATEST?"


Homily for May 17th, 2016: Mark 9:30-37.

          “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks his friends after they had completed their day’s journey and reached the house where they would spend the night. “But they remained silent,” Mark tells us. On the way Jesus had told them he would be crucified and rise again on the third day. Even though Mark tells us that they did understand what Jesus told them, they clearly understood enough to be embarrassed when he asked them the subject of their conversation. For they had been discussing “who was the greatest.”
          Luke’s gospel tells us that they even argued over this at the Last Supper. (Lk 22:24) I’m sorry to tell you, friends, that this argument continues today. And we clergy are especially susceptible. Even canonized saints have engaged in the contest for position and honor. One of them was the 18th century French saint, Vincent de Paul. He decided to be a priest, even managing to get himself ordained several years before the minimum age, because he thought of priesthood as a career, rather than a service. Only years later did he come to realize his error, acknowledging it by writing: “If I had known what priesthood was all about, as I have come to know since, I would rather have tilled the soil than engage in such an awesome state of life.”  In an attempt to put a damper on this contest about greatness, Pope Francis has put at least a temporary stop on the granting to priests of the honorific title of “Monsignor.” Well, Holy Father: Good luck!

Jesus responds to the argument about greatness by calling a young child to his side. “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,” he tells his disciples. “And whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is greatest.” We grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ action and words only when we know that he lived in a society which was anything but child-centered. In Jesus’ world children, like women, were supposed to be seen and not heard.   

When I entered seminary just over 68 years ago, we newcomers were given a book of “Principles,” as they were called, to guide our lives. One of them went like this: “Choose for yourself the lowest place, not because of modesty, but because it is most fit for you. There is always someone whose burden is heavier than yours. Find him out, and if you can, help him.”

I’ve never forgotten that. Nor should you.