Do we want to be the “Greatest”? How?

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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wisdom 2:12.,17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Gospel of Mark 9:30-37

Preached by Monsr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of Good Shepherd, Singapore on 23 September 2018

In today’s Gospel that we just heard proclaimed, when Jesus’ disciples were embarrassed when Jesus noticed that they were discussing who amongst them was “the greatest,” Jesus responded, “if anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”  Jesus then took a little child, set him in front of them, put His arms round him, and said, “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in My Name, welcomes me; and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes not Me, but the One who sent Me.”

We all know that for all times, children are precious to their parents.  However, in the ancient Jewish world, a child had no social status, no legal rights or no value whatsoever; until they reach adulthood, they were nobodies in the secular world.  And so, for Jesus who is not part of the family of the child whom He embraced, and said “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in My Name, welcomes Me,” Jesus is proclaiming and promoting a very radical way of living.  Jesus had just turned the social values of His time, upside down.

In other words, for someone to practice what Jesus has proclaimed, he has to show love and respect to a little child.  He has to put aside all his ideas of self-importance and adult status and accept a child as an equal; as a “child” relating to another child.  In highlighting the equal status and value of a child, More importantly, Jesus was challenging His disciples’ narrow expectations of the “Messiah” to be a person who comes with divine power to destroy all their enemies and oppressors.

However, Jesus was proclaiming an even more radical and unheard of view that this “Messiah” would instead be put to death by His enemies and three days later, will rise from His death.  Indeed, Jesus was proclaiming a Messiah who is to become a “Servant of all peoples: to children who were “nobodies”, to the poorest of the poor, the marginalised and to treat the greatest sinners of the secular world with Mercy and Compassion, instead of being a harsh and punishing God.  And so, the essential mission of Jesus coming as the Messiah is as He says, “I have come to Serve and not to be served.”  And, in serving all may have eternal life through Him, as willed by His Father.

There is an African fable about a basket of crabs.  These crabs were walking aimlessly round and round in the interior of a basket; always moving and getting nowhere, and getting agitated by their captivity.  Yet, they told themselves, “well this is part of life, and we have to try to get used to it.”  One day, one of the crabs, David, told himself, “We cannot be conditioned to live in this way; life is meaningless.  So, he forced his claws into the tiny nicks and crannies of the interior basket and started to climb to freedom.

The other crabs were amazed and shocked at what this crab, David was trying to do.  And so, as David was almost reaching the top of the basket, the whole community of crabs decided in unison, pulled David down into the basket and smashed him on the floor eventually killed him, for trying to break free from them.  This is what happens amongst crabs, but is also happening in our human society, communities and even in families where there are rivalries, envies and jealousies.  Such negative attitudes are called “crab mentalities” which strive for human glory.

spiritual writer, Fr Nil Guillemette, a Jesuit once described this “human glory” as a person who is constantly competing to flourish; he wants to prove to be better, faster, richer, more intelligent, more powerful or more successful than others; in short, more recognition in life.   However, Fr Nil adds, “this same glory also brings our doom because it leads to rivalry, division and eventually the destruction of everyone.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we can see that “crab mentalities” keeps us walking round and round in the interior selfishness and blindness of our lives – “getting nowhere and causing great hindrances to God’s grace who wants to liberate us from our narrow perceptions of life and people, through our self-centred ways of what Fr Nil calls “human glory”.  As such, we can see that today’s Gospel value that Jesus proclaims, challenges such “crab mentalities” at its roots.  Jesus proclaims just the opposite when He says, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.

There is a true story of Michelle, (not her real name).  Michelle’s life was filled with much suffering and sorrows.  After some years in marriage, she discovered that her husband had gambled away all the family wealth; she was unjustly sued in her business ventures, her children began to rebelled against her, her many years of savings are running low, she is falling sick frequently, and if she were to quit her job, who would provide for her family?  When Michelle shared this with me, she burst into tears and said, ”Where is God?!  Why is He not answering my prayers?  I cannot take it anymore.”  I was silent and had nothing much to say except to give her my assurance that I will surely pray for her, which I did; and asked her not to give up hope on God, for God knows all the suffering that she is going through.

Many years later, I met Michelle again, and she shared with me that her marriage had broken down and her children are still giving her a lot of nightmares.  However, she also shared this with me, “Father, I am now helping to restore a church in a very poor village in Sri Lanka.  Just as I was in deep depression, I received a letter from a priest friend who asked me whether I could help restore the very old and rundown church.

When I received the request, I somehow sensed that this would be an answer to my dreams.  In my prayers, I sensed Jesus saying to me, “I have greater plans for you.”  When I found out more details about the old church, I was very touched to hear the villagers saying that they saw Mother Mary standing in front of the old ruined church and guarding it.

Through this request to rebuild this old and rundown church, I also sensed deeply that Mother Mary is telling me, “Michelle, I will also guard your family and with my Son, we will also rebuild your family.  And, when I saw the picture of this old church, it was riddled with bullet holes.  Again, this picture gave me a sense that as the church took in so many bullet shots, it describes well how my family and I for so many years also took so many bullet shots; and now like the leaking roof of the church, the floor of my family is flooded with my tears.  Sensing all these, I prayed, “Lord Jesus, please restore my ruined family too.”  And, I felt greater strength and peace returned to my heart.

We all know that St Padre Pio, of whom we are celebrating his 50 death anniversary this year,was very well known to have received the stigmata – the five wounds of Jesus appearing on his arms, legs and side, about eight years after his priestly ordination in 1918.  St Padre Pio attracted great crowds who went to him for Confessions.  He is known to spend more than ten hours a day in the Confessionals, and then much of the rest of the time, with very little sleep: in prayer, Mass and responding to all the letters that came from all over the world, seeking his wisdom, of how to get closer to God.

St Padre Pio suffered much from his physical ailments and the many very heavy crosses he had to bear, including the many false accusations that misled Vatican into forbidding him from hearing Confessions and saying public Masses for a few years, until the ban was lifted.  In all these years, St Padre Pio bore all of these crosses with great humility and obedience to the Father’s Will through his obedience to the authorities in Rome.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us be reminded that if we want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, then He is saying to you and to me, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”  This Gospel value that Jesus proclaimed led Him to His cruel death on the Cross.

Many people in Michelle’s crises would have understandably given up their faith in God, and even blame God for not caring for them in their needs.  However, as for Michelle, in spite of the trials, tribulations and traumas that she went through she could still say to me, “Father, actually I feel truly honoured that Jesus chose me to restore the church, through His Mother Mary.  And, in whatever I do, I realise that they are nothing compared to how God loves me and never failsto show His Compassionate Love and Mercy towards me.”

When Michelle shared her deepest insights and inner feelings with me, I was very touched by them.  It is Michelle’s humility to accept that her painful sufferings of her life is beyond her to solve, but yet, because she was still able to hold on to her faith in God whom she believed will never fail her, she is today, living a life of the “holiness of the Passion and Suffering” of Jesus.

Michelle in her own ways is bearing the Cross of Christ daily, as St Padre Pio bore his crosses and the sufferings of his stigmata and the censure from Vatican that forbid him from hearing Confessions and saying public Masses, until they were lifted.

And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, as I conclude, let us be reminded that if you and I want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, then inspired by the examples of Michelle and St Padre Pio, who followed the path of Jesus’ Suffering and Death on the Cross, let us recognise that one of the biggest hindrance towards being a good disciple of Jesus is the pride of the “crab mentality” that promotes “self and human glory” instead of God’s Greater Glory.  As Jesus, in today’s Gospel challenged the Jewish culture that marginalises a child unjustly, you and I are called to embrace every suffering person with Christ’s Mercy and Compassionate Love.

For Michelle, such “suffering persons” that she is called to embrace is her broken family; for St Padre Pio it was his perseverance of the pain of his stigmata and his humility of obeying the authorities of the Church.  You and I will certainly have our different “crosses” that Jesus wants us to carry.

Let us then pray to be more like Jesus so that we will carry the “crosses” of our daily living and the burdens of our lives, with greater humility, and with the greater wisdom of obeying Jesuswho says to you and to me, “If anyone wants to be first and to be the greatest, then he must make himself last of all and servant of all” like Me who have shown you the way, as your Saviour and Lord.

  • Adapted from: A Costly Freedom, A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel by Brendan Byrne, SJ.; Collegeville, Minnesota 2008 pub.: p. 152
  • Adapted from: Hearts Burning, Homilies for Sundays of the Year, Nil Guillemette, S.J.: St Pauls Pub. 2006: Makati City, Philippines; pp.275.

Msgr Philip Heng, S.J.