To love is to serve

by Mary McGlone

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Today’s selection from Wisdom sounds like a playground war: “Get him! He thinks he’s too smart! Goody two-shoes, just you wait and see!” (There should probably be all kinds of “$##¡@&**@!” representing the colorful language used by our preteen perpetrators.)


Twenty-Fifth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Psalm 54
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

Cel-Sept202015.jpgThe suffering of the just seems a far more serious problem than a recess bully. Nevertheless, these 10-year-old tormenters participate in the same process as the righteous executioners we find in Scripture and history, from the murder of Abel through Jesus’ crucifixion and the martyrdom of disciples into our own day.

Throughout his entire ministry, Jesus tried to counter the type of thinking that put stock in domination by fear, finance, force or fame. Time and again, he told his disciples, “Do not be afraid.”

Contrary to popular principles, Jesus praised the awe-inspiring value of the widow’s mite, taught that a truly strong person can turn the other cheek, and warned his disciples to avoid being impressed by fancy religious garb and titles.

But as we hear in today’s Gospel, the disciples didn’t get it -- not at all. So when Jesus confided in them about his destiny, they simply could not hear of it. Mark explains it bluntly: They were afraid to ask. Instead of confronting their discomfort with the topic, they fell into the age-old pattern of trying to one-up each other. Whether in jest or seriousness, competition generally offers a surefire escape from dealing with what matters.

It’s easy to miss the fact that Jesus did not reproach them for their discussion of who was the greatest. Instead, he gave them the CliffsNotes to real greatness: “If anyone wishes to be first ...” It’s hard to imagine a more thorough reversal of the disciples’ values than the living parable Jesus performed as he gave center stage to a little girl. (True, the original language does not specify her gender, but Jesus was out to shake them up, and using a girl child would have doubled the impact of his gesture.)

This was not one of Jesus’ “Pluck out your eye” exaggerations. He was absolutely serious -- even if with an element of mischievous playfulness. By placing the child at the center and identifying with her, Jesus was expounding his most profound and scandalous theology: God comes to humanity in vulnerability. He could not have said it more plainly: “Whoever receives one such as this, receives me.”

After having twice told his disciples that evil powers would unleash their wrath on him, he then made this innocent child his symbol and explained that all his power came from being a servant. They may not have really understood it, but they remembered it enough to be sure that the scene was related in three Gospels.

These readings come at a unique moment in our history, the eve of Pope Francis’ planned visit to the United States. In one day of that visit, Francis will almost certainly be seen by more people than saw Jesus in the entire course of his ministry -- and that doesn’t even count the media audiences. One thing that Francis has in common with Jesus is his ability to be real. He does his theology more than he talks about it.

Jesus put a little girl in the midst of the disciples to show them how to act and whom to serve. Francis washed the feet of Muslims, baptized the child of a couple not married in the church, and ordered showers for the homeless installed in the Vatican.

While everything that Francis does is in the limelight, he seems to know how to give witness to Jesus’ way of doing things in public as a servant rather than as a showman. Jesus warned of the subtle but diabolical danger entailed in doing good in the public eye: Too often, and frequently subconsciously, it is done for the benefit of the do-gooder more than for the recipient. In the end, the benefactor may receive acclaim while missing or even avoiding the grace of a real encounter with the other.

If we want to learn to imitate Jesus and not the status-seekers, James seems to have the advice we need. He simply tells us to allow our motivation to come from “wisdom from above.” That means that we become atheists to the gods of the bullies and cultivate faith in the God who shows us that to live is to love and to love is to serve.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 11-Sept 24, 2015 print issue under the headline: To love is to serve.

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