Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

October 18, 2009

The world values service a whole lot. People are willing to pay good money provided they are given a full complement of services everywhere they go, whether in a restaurant or a hotel. We just love to be pampered by service even if, deep inside, we know we are really paying dearly for it. Being served somehow makes us feel good about ourselves and gives a boost to our self-image. No wonder cruises, some of which are not called “celebrity cruises” for nothing, all go for the topmost quality in quality services that make one feel, at least for a short period, like celebrities, if not royalty.

It is thus also not to be wondered at that two of Jesus’ close-in followers – James and John – who probably felt important enough after being identified with someone whom crowds adored and adulated, as to ask a big - if pretentious - favor from the Lord: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Mark’s recounting of the story seems significant even to a non-biblical scholar like me. James and John asked the Lord to “do for [them] whatever [they] ask of him.” It was “service” they wanted. They wanted the Lord to do for them something they must have sorely valued and thus, very much desired.

I see two aspects to the self-centered request of the two brothers: service from their Lord and Master in the form of an honorable place beside the same Master when the right time comes.

Certain crazy ideas do come into the head of people who think they have done something great, something worth being thanked for, something worth being rewarded. Warped beliefs about deserving to be rewarded handsomely and treated “justly” do come into the minds of people who have in the first place come to be served and not to serve. People whose focus are on themselves begin counting whatever good they have done, whatever contribution they have made. How many times people withdraw from associations both religious and secular simply because they have not been “treated fairly,” or just because they “have not been given due consideration?” Groupings and associations in and out of the Church have not been, and are not immune to so many petty intrigues, that accrue from hurt feelings, as when one feels the “parish priest just does not show appreciation for what I have done.”

As a priest, pastor, preacher, and teacher over more than two and a half decades, and as one who was in various forms of authority and leadership for almost as long, I have personally experienced what I am talking about. I have also felt sidelined. I have felt unappreciated and unrewarded. I have also seen people walk out of groups and associations for the same reason. I have seen individuals refuse to cooperate at some point when they feel they have not been justly and fairly “treated.” Pride and self-centeredness always have a way of rearing its ugly head, taking the better of us, and holding what good we could otherwise be doing, as a veritable hostage.

We have to admit that we all, at some point or other, secretly nurture that oftentimes unacknowledged desire to “sit at the right and left hand” of whoever can make our personal stature even grander and greater in the eyes of women and men.

I believe that it is no empty coincidence that the Holy Father chose more or less this time six years ago to raise Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the glories of the altar and declare her blessed and worthy of being honored in the Church. There is no denying that all her life, all her energies, talents and personal riches were all dedicated to serving others, especially “the least, the last, the lowest, and the lost.”

The life and holy death of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, therefore, is a modern icon of what Christian service is all about – a lesson far too powerful to be ignored and glossed over, the very same lesson that was impressed upon so clearly and definitively on James and John: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles 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 first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

James and John, however, still had an edge over most of us. After making that self-centered request, the Lord asked them: “Can you drink the cup that drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” At the very least, I would like to think that indeed, James and John meant what they said. History tells us that they both did, thus becoming towering figures in the history of the early Church.

The question for us modern women and men is twofold. Firstly, in a world that is averse to any form of discomfort and pain; in a culture that despises any form of suffering and tries to cover it up by a never-ending search for more ease, comfort and convenience, (just look at the so many “throw-away” cleaning materials advertised; just look at the billions of dollars spent on anti-depressants and on research to further design drugs that anesthetize the soul, mind and heart to pain!), James and John, for their initial selfishness, really had the essentials necessary for service – the capacity and readiness to suffer, to follow the footsteps of their Master to Calvary. In a moment of weakness, which we all really have, the spirit simply caved in to a thirst for power and honor!

The second question for us is the more difficult one precisely because it was in exactly the same area that James and John faltered. This has to do with enough self-esteem, enough self-love coupled paradoxically with enough self-denial as to love service minus the honor, minus the external rewards of recognition from other people. The question for us is how ready we are to “give without counting the cost; to serve without expecting rewards.”

The question for us, in terms of our contemporary times, is whether we can do a Mother Teresa in the ordinary situation of our lives wherever we are.

People mistakenly think that greatness has to do with doing complicated stuff. I have it on the authority of a woman writer that nothing is further from the truth. I have it on the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta that greatness does not lie so much on heroics, as on fidelity, constancy and utter simplicity. “Indeed, nothing is more simple than greatness; to be simple is to be great.” It simply means, doing things fully and not getting by with half-measures.

Full service for the Lord, not a “self-serving” search for one’s own puny greatness. This is what we are asked to give today, all days and for always.


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