James R. Keating, O.S.A.
Church of St. Augustine
James 3:16 - 4:3
What is it with us human beings? What makes us tick? Why do we act the way we do? Why is it, for instance, that when we come across a truly good and holy person, we’re often fearful of that person? We may be attracted to such a person, but then we also are fearful of that person at the same time – feeling odd or uncomfortable in that person’s presence. Rather than rejoicing in that person’s goodness, why is it we often look upon his existence as a personal affront? Is it because that person’s goodness functions for us something like an external conscience? Or perhaps we see in that person what we really want ourselves to be but are not? Remember how Tim Tebow was treated when he was drafted by an NFL team? Remember how he was ridiculed because of his faith?
In today’s first reading, the author of the book of Wisdom indicates an understanding of the human penchant for ridiculing the good and the just. The sages of the past knew that those who choose the way of righteousness may be confronted with obstacles that seem insurmountable. The reading from Wisdom describes such a situation. People who try to live lives of integrity are not always appreciated. In fact, they are often ridiculed and sometimes even persecuted and killed. There are people who seem to take delight in pushing decent individuals to the limits of their endurance. In doing so, they try to demonstrate that the righteous person is no better than anyone else. If they cannot corrupt good people, they try to get rid of them instead.
Jesus is the ultimate example of such victimization. He was the righteous one, par excellence. When those who opposed him were unable to undermine the success of his ministry, they plotted to get rid of him. Yet, Jesus was not deterred. In this he became the supreme model of how we should continue faithfully on the path of righteousness despite immense obstacles, leaving the outcome in God’s hands.
We all try to fashion our lives and our world in such a way that the ideal presented to us by Jesus might become a reality. But we don’t have to live long to realize that goodness does not guarantee success and happiness. Sometimes shameless behavior is rewarded. When we are caught up in such perils, we might be tempted to abandon our noble standards and values. Will we discover that our personal integrity is nothing but a veneer? Will we succumb to the temptations of the “low road”? Or will we choose the “high road” of loyal discipleship despite the cost that this may exact from us?
The gospel ends on a truly sad note. How tragic it is that as Jesus was speaking to his disciples about his coming death in Jerusalem, they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. The disciples still did not understand the Messiah was not to be a conquering hero but a servant. So Jesus decides to teach them all a lesson. Once the little group reaches Capernaum and settles down in the home of friends, Jesus takes a little child and places the child inside the circle of his disciples. Pointing to the child, he reminds his followers that the person will be considered great in his kingdom who serves the least and the most insignificant. To be great in God’s kingdom is not necessarily to do great and glorious things; nor to be a powerful political or military leader. To be great in God’s kingdom a person must give of himself in service to the helpless and the weakest, symbolized by the child. Jesus insists that in receiving society’s most vulnerable, we receive Jesus himself; and in receiving him, we receive God. This is the epitome of true discipleship.
The arguing disciples were looking for greatness in a powerful nation that they thought was coming into existence through the words and actions of Jesus. They believed that they would be among Jesus’ inner circle in such a kingdom.
But Jesus uses the child as a warning to them and to us. The child is a reminder that we who profess to be followers of Jesus are not to seek relationships with the powerful or with people who can do something for us. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be in the company of those who most need our help, those who are weak and vulnerable. To some, this might seem foolish. But to the disciple this is the way that leads to righteousness and to lasting peace. Amen.