October 17, 2015

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 18, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

"Can you drink the cup that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with
which I am baptized?" Mark 10:38
(Click here for today’s readings)

Successor of the Prince of the Apostles. Sovereign of the Vatican City State. Primate of Italy. Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province. Bishop of Rome. Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. Vicar of Jesus Christ. There can be no doubt as to who is being described by this impressive list of titles. The ambitions of James and John don’t even come close.

Still, you’ve got to give them credit. Although by this point Jesus has already predicted his passion three times, the third coming immediately before today’s Gospel, James and John seem to be in a state of denial. All they can see is that Jesus is the Messiah, the real deal, destined for glory, and they want to be part of that, to be great by association. No time like the present, then, to jockey for position, to set themselves up to share the honors in a place of privilege.

Jesus basically warns them to be careful what they ask for. There will be some serious suffering involved. He doesn’t quote our first reading from Isaiah, but that is definitely the gist of what he says.

No problem, say James and John. They can do whatever it takes. But even assuming they are really up to the challenge, Jesus still can’t give them what they want. And it’s just as well, because that is not at all what he has in mind for them. It’s fine if they want to be great, as long as they are willing to be servants.

There is a term that has made its way into religious circles in recent years, whereby those in authority are expected to exercise “servant leadership.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it is not actually a religious concept, but comes from the business world! It’s about employers who inspire rather than command, who care more about their employees than about the business, and so motivate employees to give their best to the business.

This is a model that can certainly work in the Church. Still, it is not quite what Jesus had in mind. It isn’t about the relationship between employers and employees, but between servants and served. We could even say it is about the relationship between servants and servants. It’s not only leadership that is called to service.

In one place St. Paul encourages Christians to “bear one another’s burdens.” That is the kind of mutual service that Jesus proposes. We see it put into practice in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, where we read that “the community of believers was of one heart and mind.”

Jesus presents himself as the model: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He expects the same of his disciples.

“Giving one’s life” means dying, of course, in the spirit of John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” But it also means devoting one’s life to others—ideally to one another—in a genuine demonstration of care for each other. In this sense Jesus presents himself as a model not only for bishops, priests and religious, but to spouses, to families and, yes, even to employers and employees.

Pope Francis exemplifies this spirit very well indeed. Instead of all his titles listed above, he seems to prefer one that was not mentioned there: “Servant of the servants of God.” It’s not about him. It’s about all of us. And he inspires us to respond to the invitation of the second reading: “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy.” Here, too, we “receive mercy” not just to have it for ourselves, but to exercise it towards others. It is part and parcel of being a servant.

How would you like to do something great, something beautiful for God? Pray for the grace to do so. But be careful what you ask for. There could be some serious suffering involved. And there definitely will be some serious service expected.

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