I have occasionally wondered how exactly that whole discussion went down among the twelve as they argued who was the greatest. Did they brag about who had the better upbringing, or whose family had greater influence in the community? Did they boast about their personal achievements, like who got better grades in school, who won more sports awards, who was more popular with the girls, who landed more lucrative job offers? Did they brag about who was physically stronger, smarter, funnier, who was the better dresser, who had cooler friends, who won the most arguments? Must be a guy thing. There’s just no limit to the things men talk about to prove they’re better than their friends. And when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way, they hung their heads in shame. They probably knew they were being childish and immature, and Jesus probably would not approve, much less play along. And maybe it wasn’t an isolated incident. Maybe it had been going on a while. Funny, they were always able to keep Jesus from noticing. But I’m sure he did anyway.
I always thought comparing oneself with others was just part of human nature. Why did Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree that God instructed them not to eat? Because the serpent told them they would become like gods, knowing good and evil. Up until that point, they were perfectly content. Then the serpent gave his sales pitch, and won them over, well, Eve anyway. Then Eve convinced Adam. And it’s all been downhill from there. When we compare ourselves with others, we just naturally want to come out smelling better, or we at least want a fighting chance. So it can’t be just a guy thing anymore. Eve made sure of that.
But some people will occasionally admit to being judgmental, that is, to making those comparisons that seem to come naturally when we encounter something new or different, and then twisting it around so it results in disapproval or ridicule of some unfortunate unsuspecting soul. When we say we are being judgmental, we mean we are judging others unfairly, and we know it’s wrong. But there is nothing inherently wrong about making comparisons. When we figure out which is better or worse, we’re just gathering information. Acting on that information, whether to raise someone up or to knock them down, is the choice that determines whether we’ve done right or wrong.
And despite what we know about being judgmental, and that it’s downright wrong, we’ve turned it into a national pastime. We revel in knocking down the competition. It’s not enough that we win the fight fair and square. We have to be ugly about it, too, and throw everything else into the mix. We did it in the cold war. We do it at practically every level of athletic competition, from amateur to professional sports. We do it at every election cycle. And we consider it acceptable how hardcore partisans carry on mercilessly in between cycles. Now that we are fighting terrorism and religious extremism, we are in danger of unfairly judging whole cultures and religions. But it gets even stranger that we actually believe it is good for our free market system. If it fosters competition, it must be healthy, never mind that we tear at each other in the process. And we are royally offended when other people do it to us, never mind that we and they claim to be Christians. I’d say it’s definitely a very unfortunate human thing.
But Jesus shows us how his thinking and his way of life are very different from ours. Two weeks in a row now he speaks to his closest friends of his coming passion, death and resurrection, difficult images to take in. Remember how Peter tried to tell him last week to quit bumming them out, and how he was swiftly reprimanded? But the images from the book of Wisdom and the epistle of James point once again to the darkness that lurks in the human heart. People with evil intent will often stop at nothing to disrupt or harm the just. And our natural instinct is to strike back, to give them as they give us, to fight fire with fire. Yet the Christian response to evil is not and cannot ever be evil as well. Instead, Jesus offers us a different way of thinking, and a new way of living.
“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Is he for real, we ask? How does one get ahead thinking like that in a world that eats the humble and the gentle for breakfast? We didn’t become the greatest military power in the world by coddling our enemies, or asking questions before we shoot. We didn’t become the greatest economic power in the world by not exploiting every loophole, or worrying about our impact on the local small business owner. We didn’t get to be the world’s athletic powerhouse by being modest about our successes, or sharing our cutting-edge scientific research. So how do we honestly call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ if we simply cannot see ourselves as the last of all, and the servant of all?
Folks, I don’t have an answer, because there is no simple answer. There are aspects of Christian discipleship that will forever challenge the values of the world we live in. So we need to keep exploring what our faith teaches, and not rejecting it because we don’t understand it. At the beginning of each academic year, the church directs our attention to the job we have as a community of passing on what we believe. And how do we pass on what we believe, if we do not know our faith? Our parish offers many opportunities for everyone, both young people and adults, to keep asking questions and exploring our Catholic faith. If we are serious about our Christian discipleship, we need to commit ourselves to learning what it asks of us, and strive to grow in relationship with the Lord Jesus who calls us to follow after him. Every year, the church invites us to come to the table that our God sets for us so that our hunger may be satisfied and our thirst quenched, but many who call themselves his disciples still choose to walk away.
Each year, I also call forward a group of parishioners who commit themselves to sharing the responsibility of leadership in this parish. They are willing to extend themselves in the service of the kingdom of God, to challenge themselves and all of us, to build community and grow in the love of God. Leadership is not an easy road. And Christian leadership can be even more challenging. It is a path in which we strive to be the best after the heart of Jesus the Good Shepherd. I ask you to pray for these women and men who make up the parish pastoral council. They will be the best at what they do if they believe that being a disciple sets them at odds with the world. Jesus sets the example for us – that success is about loving service, and being the best means being the last of all. It is a new way of thinking, a new way of living what we believe. Neither you nor I would have come up with something like it. It’s definitely something that identifies a disciple of Jesus Christ – therefore a very Christian thing indeed.