Walking with Jesus in consistency and hope

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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 23, 2012
Wis 2:12, 17-20; Ps 54; James 3:16–4:3; Mark 9:30-37

This is embarrassing! These disciples of Jesus: they follow him, travel with him, see everything he does, hear everything he says. They do so because they have been so impressed by him and want to learn from his teaching and follow his way. And yet, look at them in this reading! They don’t understand what he tells them about his coming death and resurrection, and yet they are afraid to ask him to explain it. And on their journey they are arguing about which of them is the greatest—which is so very foreign to everything that Jesus is about.

How is this possible? How can the disciples believe in him and love him and follow him and listen to him—and yet seemingly be walking a completely different path from him?

After all, it’s not like we do that—we who have been baptized in him, and catechized in the faith, and come to Mass to be with him, to hear his teaching and to receive his Body and Blood in Holy Communion. We’re not like those disciples! If our daily lives were written up and read aloud, we wouldn’t see any inconsistency between us and Jesus! If Jesus asked us what we were arguing about on the way, we wouldn’t have to remain silent in embarrassment—or if he asked us why we spent our time this way, or our money, or set our priorities, or treated others.

Or maybe we’re not so different from the disciples after all.

How is it that the disciples, and we, can live in such inconsistency? How can we allow one part of what we say and do to contradict another? Of course, a full answer to these questions would be quite long. But we can find part of the answer by digging down into our other two Scripture readings today.

The disciples were discussing among themselves who was the greatest—and so we recognize in them the jealousy and selfish ambition that St. James writes about in his second reading. Why are they motivated by this? Why does this characterize their actions, even when they are traveling with Jesus? St. James likewise asks: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” And he answers: “Is it not from your passions”—a word that could just as easily be translated “cravings.” Our cravings—the same cravings that the disciples experienced. Cravings for money and possessions; for power and position; for love from other people; for pleasure and satisfaction of bodily desires. Everyone experiences these cravings to some degree—but in some they take over.

And when they take over, as St. James writes, we covet but do not possess, so we kill—if only killing another’s spirit with words. We envy but cannot obtain, so we fight and wage war—if only in interpersonal conflicts. We see this sometimes in ourselves, even when we want to follow Jesus; and we see it in the disciples. And there is one other place we see it in today’s readings—in the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, where we see it in its ugliest form. For there, we heard the wicked plotting to torture and kill the just one.

If we look just a little earlier in the Book of Wisdom, we see what they are doing and why. For we see that the wicked have explicitly decided to give themselves over to their cravings. They say: “Let us enjoy the good things that are real… Let us have our fill of costly wines and perfumes.” (Wis 2:6-7) And, in seeking to satisfy their cravings, they are ready to oppress other—the needy, the widow, the old man—to take all that they can get. And so we see the tyranny of those cravings, which St. James speaks of and the disciples live out to some degree, coming to full, ugly flower in this reading from Wisdom.

But what’s really interesting is that, if we probe a little further back in the 2nd chapter of the Book of Wisdom, we see why the wicked have given themselves over to the tyranny of their cravings. It is because they have lost all hope. They have been impressed by how unavoidable and final death is. They see nothing beyond the end of this earthly life. They do not believe that God exists; or, if he does, that he cares for us or acts toward us at all. And so, in their despair, they surrender to their cravings, and are ready to oppress and take from others in living this earthly life.

And this is why the just one is so obnoxious to them—not only because he reproaches them, but because he does so out of beliefs that seem to them to be false illusions. And so, when they decide to torture and kill him, it is a way of showing him and everyone else that their despair is the truth.

But what if they’re wrong? What if there is a brilliant hope that they cannot see? It was right in this black kernel of despair that our Lord Jesus met them. For he is the Son of God, who loves us so much that he became incarnate as one of us, walking among us, acting right in our history. And when he suffered their torture and execution in the most painful, shameful way possible, as his enemies mocked him with words about whether he really was the son of God and whether God would take care of him (Matt 27:42-43)—and his broken body was shut up in the tomb—he did not stay there! On the third day he broke the bonds of death and rose triumphant from the grave, transformed and glorious! He showed that death is not the final word; and he opened to us a beautiful new vista of eternal life beyond this life, and infinite blessing that far surpasses anything we might crave now.

That changes everything! Now, despair is replaced by hope! Now, aloneness is replaced by confident trust! Now, the path of Jesus opens bright before us; and the way we play the game of life completely changes, because the game itself has changed! Now, with all the coldness of despair driven out by the living flame of faith, we can live in that same complete, childlike trust that our Lord Jesus showed in his Heavenly Father (cf. Matt 18:3). We can let go of jealousy and ambition, and of conversations about who is the greatest. We can embrace in love someone who cannot reward us. We can become pure, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, and utterly consistent and sincere.

We can walk the path of our Lord Jesus—not in embarrassing inconsistency, but truly, becoming more and more the saints that he wants us to become. As indeed his poor disciples did after they saw him risen triumphant from the dead. For then they fully understood and were rooted in that trust, and we see them utterly different in the Book of Acts: bold, courageous, wise, caring, generous; and ready to go to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News of our risen Lord Jesus Christ.

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