TO BE RIGHTEOUS IS NOT EASY
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
September 19 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Wisdom 2:12;17-20 | Psalm 54:3-6:8
James 3:16-4:3 | Mark 9:30-37
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Many people place a high value on avoiding criticism from others. But doing that has its price. The desire to have other people like you rather than condemn you sometimes forces you to behave in ways your conscience tells you is wrong. And sometimes, the price you pay is your life. Although strictly illegal by the letter of the law, college fraternities and sororities subject prospective members, known as “pledges” to having rituals.
A few years ago in Pennsylvania, a fraternity at Penn State University conducted a hazing ritual involving the over-consumption of alcohol that resulted in the death of a nineteen-year-old boy. Although the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania prosecuted the perpetrators, those responsible received very light sentences. Unfortunately, hazing incidents have continued to transpire at colleges all over the United States.
Today’s First Reading addresses what happens to those who stand up for what is objectively wrong in the face of pressure from others and call it out. What if Timothy Piazza, the boy who died at Penn State, had told the fraternity, “No, I am not going to abuse alcohol, and further, if I see you do it to anyone else, I will report it and testify truthfully in Court about it.” Without a doubt, he would have faced the scorn of his peers, perhaps even violence.
Why? The frat brothers live under the false ideas that appear in the part of chapter two of the Book of Wisdom that was omitted from today’s First Reading, which tells us that ungodly people reason in an unsound way. Here is their unsound outlook on life. They proclaim, and I quote from the Book of Wisdom,
“Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when it comes to its end…for our allotted time is the passing of a shadow…Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist…”let us take our fill of costly wine…because this is our portion and our lot…let us oppress the righteous poor man.” And today’s First Reading goes on to say that life for people who do what is objectively good will be miserable.
So many people find it easier to “go along with the program” so that they won’t suffer unpopularity and harassment from other people. They feel avoiding criticism of yourself by others is more important than doing the right thing. Many police investigations are stymied because the friends and families of those who perpetrate criminal acts remain silent or even lie. Their personal and group relationships are more important to them than telling the truth.
Jesus was not a popular guy with the religious and governmental establishments of his day. Although he did good things, like healing the sick and feeding the hungry, and he spoke words of wisdom, the authorities wanted him dead and out of the way. Jesus was a threat and rival to them. Jesus knew it.
Today’s Gospel Reading gives us the second of three Passion Predictions found in Mark wherein Jesus prophesizes his impending death and resurrection. Jesus knew what was going to happen to him, and he knew why. The authorities wanted Jesus dead because he repeatedly called out their evil ways. The result was his death on the cross. His death vindicated the description of human behavior set out in today’s first reading. But Jesus had the last laugh. He rose from the dead.
Again, today’s First Reading is a small snippet of a larger story. If you read what comes after it in the Book of Wisdom, you will read that death entered the world by the devil, but that the souls of the righteous will be in the hands of God. Both the First Reading and the Gospel call us today to reflect on what theologians call our eschatological destination, meaning what will happen to us in the final analysis. Good people will seem to have died, but will ultimately be at peace.
What lies beyond this world we do not really know, but I can tell you that people who have left us live on in the memories of those left behind. Some of those memories are good, and others are not. Our remembrances of some people are heavenly, while those of others are torture. Perhaps at the level of our memories, there are such things as heaven and hell.
Those who torture good people as described in today’s First Reading, and those who tortured and killed Jesus, operate with no concern at all about how they will be remembered. Those focused solely on today’s here-and-now fall waste their time arguing who will be in charge during our earthly lives.
Immediately after Jesus shared today’s Passion prediction with his disciples, they argued about who was the greatest among themselves. When Jesus asked them about what they were arguing, they remained silent, so Jesus took the initiative and said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
What Jesus said is yet another example of a theme found throughout the Gospels called “The Great Reversal”. Deaf people hear, as we experienced in the Gospel two weeks ago. “To save your life, you must lose it” as we heard last week. In the Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke, we hear about putting down the rich and lifting up the poor. And there are many other examples where that existing order is turned upside down. But the ultimate Great Reversal was the Resurrection itself when Jesus rose from the grave.
What Jesus wants from us is for us to experience him in the manner of a so-called “great reversal” by approaching our relationship with God as a child would. Instead of being a world-wise adult, be an innocent child. Jesus would like us to descend from our cliff of pride to assume a mantle of humility. For those of us who are adults, looking at life from a child-like perspective is pretty difficult, particularly for those who are middle-aged like me, childhood is a very distant memory, something that happened long ago. As a consequence, we’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child. Also, so many of us have so many painful and unpleasant memories of our childhoods that we would not want to relive them.
What Jesus wants is for us to assume the status of a child in relation to the rest of the world in the way that children related to adult society at the time when Jesus lived. What that means is he wants us to approach him as a person without social status would. In those days, the status of a child was barely more than that of an animal.
In the ancient world in which Jesus lived, children were at the lowest level on the totem pole, even lower than women or slaves. Children were not even considered people. Put another way, childhood in first-century Palestine was not what it is (or should be) in today’s world. In antiquity, childhood was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached thirty percent of live births. Sometimes sixty percent of all children were dead by the age of sixteen. These figures reflect the ravages of unconquered diseases and the outcomes of poor hygiene.
In contemporary America and Europe, people put children first and risk everything to save their child above all else, but in the culture in which Jesus lived, in ancient times, adults did not sacrifice for the good of their children. In fact, during times of famine, parents fed themselves and let their children starve. The health and welfare of children had no legal protection. A child’s earnings belonged to the child’s father. In so many words, a child lived in total humility to the world surrounding the child. That’s the approach to God to which Jesus is calling us.
But we church people aren’t doing that. Rather than approach the world as a humble servant, many churches spend considerable time and resources arguing some version of the question, “Who should be in charge?” How do we change that, so that church people can go about the true business of being the church, which is building the Kingdom of God?
Today’s Second reading gives us hints as to how to do that. The overall theme of the Epistle of James is “practical religion.” It is the sole “wisdom book” of the canonical New Testament. The “wisdom tradition” is applying theology to life based on experience and common sense. Today’s reading therefrom sheds light on how we might deal with people described in today’s First Reading and how we might be better at serving than pursuing power.
The unknown author of James is right on point in describing what happens in chasing power. Conflicts in the church over power inevitably involve what the author of James describes in today’s second reading, which proclaims, ”Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.”
As anyone who has been around church for any length of time knows, the passions of individuals in their quest for power get the better of people to the point where they focus on their own personal feelings rather than on God. Simply put, people who seek power over others are more concerned about controlling other people than their relationship with God.
For many church people, resolving power issues comes ahead of planting churches, baptizing, and the pastoral ministry of healing and reconciliation. But that is not what Jesus wants from us.
Our own Ecumenical Catholic Communion has spent hours on amending its Constitution, but very little, if any, time on any programs to encourage and fund new independent Catholic churches in areas where there are none. This morning, we send our sincere congratulations to Kay Madden, the newly-consecrated Rocky Mountain Regional Bishop. We hope that under her leadership, the people of the Rocky Mountain Region will pattern their ministry by concentrating their time and resources on doing what the Apostles did in the Book of Acts. Those Apostles were missionaries who started new communities to carry out the Great Commission and serve the people of God.
What the Apostles did does actually work in the real world. For example, Bishop Peter Hickman in planted Saint Matthews in Orange, and Bishop Armando Leyva planted Holy Trinity in Long Beach. They are the two largest parishes of the E-C-C. We wish Bishop Kay all the success in the world in recruiting clergy to plant churches, and may God bless her always. At least some of those ordained in the Apostolic Succession should be succeeding as apostles. That means planting churches.
In the church, Jesus calls us to be humble servants of the people of God. Today’s Gospel proclaims that assuaging egos by engaging in arguments over power is not part of the program that Jesus gave us. To be prophetic in the manner expected of us in today’s First Reading requires courage to withstand brickbats and insults from those whose short-term considerations overtake the long-term, big-picture perspective shown to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, as Christians, should not fear those kinds of people. As today’s Psalm refrain tells us, God is there to uphold us, to hear our prayers, and to protect us and help us when we are tested.
In dealing with our fellow Christians, I implore you to follow the advice the author of James gives us. Be peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, and keep your eyes on the prize of an eternal oneness with God. Skip the power games. Shun church politics. Live in the way of the Gospel and proclaim the Kingdom of God! Amen.