25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I love crime drama, preferably intelligent crime drama, where the characters have depth, and answers to the burning questions aren’t so obvious. Every so often, it’s nice when a show ends, and I can just move on to something else, pick up a good book, take the dog for a walk, work on next week’s homily. But it’s even more exciting when I am left scratching my head because I am not convinced the story should have ended the way it did, because I have many more unanswered questions, because I just simply can’t move on to something else. Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy a charming episode of mindless TV that has zero impact on my life and thinking, but you can’t really survive on a diet of powdered donuts and soda. I know I can’t. At some point, I will want something more substantial, something my teeth will find more challenging.

In an intelligent crime drama, the team of problem-solvers, law-enforcement, forensic scientists, and behavioral analysts, will gather clues and examine them in great detail. They will reference other similar known crimes. They will uncover patterns of behavior, and speculate motive. They will even probe the potential crime suspect’s mind, trying to get into their thinking based on the clues, to see what they see, to understand what they understand. Sometimes they nail it. Occasionally they overlook some significant but obvious detail. I love it when I don’t see that missing detail myself. And if I can rewind or go back to a previous scene, I will realize that the significant detail we all missed was sitting right there in full view the whole time. And I have to slap myself on the forehead and admit I had been outsmarted. It’s a learning experience for next time, or until the writers use up all their tools, fall into a rut, get predictable, and I have to move on to some other crime drama series for mental stimulation.

Whenever we encounter human behavior that we find inconsistent or troubling, we will want to understand why, and where it comes from. We will want to uncover its root cause, and whatever conditions enabled such behavior to go unnoticed or be regarded as acceptable for so long. We can no longer just brush away difficult questions with platitudes like “It happened so long ago,” or “That’s just the way people behaved in those days.” If in fact people of a different time and place turned a blind eye on racism or sexism or the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, we will need to own up to our blindness, and admit how we have been complicit, and do all in our power to right the wrong. It will be messy. But darkness remains, if the light does not dispel it.

Profiling a potential crime suspect is an exciting exercise in examining human behavior. A person’s proximity to the behaviors in question, either because they have experienced them as primary agents or accomplices or victims or even witnesses can affect their objectivity. That is why it is always preferable to approach this exercise as a diverse team, so no one person is blinded by their biases. I propose that today’s readings invite us to profile an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ. I cannot say I have examined every angle or perspective, but the crime drama model is a good start. I always like to leave you with more questions than answers. Today is no exception.

The gospel passage from Mark returns to a theme from last week. Jesus is again talking about his coming passion, death, and resurrection. Last week, Peter got blasted for suggesting Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about, that he should quit being such a spoilsport. Jesus called Peter “Satan” because “he was thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Again Jesus mentions his passion, death, and resurrection, but his disciples did not understand, and were afraid to question him. Once bitten. They figured this time around, it was best to say nothing.

But as they kept walking, even Jesus noticed they were having more than an ordinary conversation. “What were you arguing about on the way?”[1] Once again, they thought it best to remain silent. But Jesus actually knew what they were arguing about. He just wanted to give them an opportunity to tell him themselves. But no takers. So he tells them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

Wanting to be first is every selfish person’s desire. And we all start out selfish. It’s no big revelation. When a child is born, their hands are closed fists. And you won’t get anything back quickly that you put in it. Some children soon learn they can get what they want by simply pouting or shedding a few tears. When that fails, they explore more extreme measures like psychological warfare or total meltdown in the grocery store aisle. Wanting to be first is not that different from wanting a life on my own terms, being in control, answering to no one. An authentic disciple of Jesus Christ is not driven by a desire to be first, at least not in any way selfish people consider being first.

The just servant of God in the book of Wisdom is the object of scorn and abuse by those threatened by his words and his way of life, who see nothing wrong with putting him to the test. They know that the upright servant holds himself to a higher standard, and will not behave as they would, in an unreasonable or unjust manner. Otherwise they expose themselves as frauds. Why would a just person who claims God is their shield and protector seek vengeance on their enemies? Would that just show they don’t truly trust God? Now we can understand why people who are scorned and abused might fight back. But by embracing his suffering and death Jesus shows us that our sense of justice is quite different from his. If we choose to live by the law, we just can’t set it aside when our emotions run high. Nor can we behave toward terrorists the way they behave toward us. And if we want to live by God’s law, we can’t just set it aside when we’re dealing with people who despise God or our Christian way of life.

St. James doesn’t pull any punches. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”[2] In a nutshell, the authentic disciple of Jesus Christ is not driven by their passions.

Sometimes an absence of outrage can be perceived as weakness. But “wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”[3] The just servant of God is able to look past the façade of self-importance and righteous indignation. If our path is not one of suffering and death, of being last and the servant of all, can we still claim to be true disciples?

Rolo B Castillo © 2018

[1]Mark 9: 33

[2]James 4: 1-3

[3]James 3: 17-18