Sep 19, 2015

25th Sunday: The greatness of humility

Wis 2: 12,17-20
Jas 3: 16-4:3
Mk 9: 30-37

(Sunday Scriptures found with picture at right)

Humility is not often a concept easily applied.  I often wonder how a movie star, popular sports figure, famous world leader or influential politician, a Pope or popular Bishop or priest can maintain a sense of humility. It is said that if you actually think you have the ability to step in and take on the leadership of a nation, your ego must be enormous. Still, it has to be done. 
With adoring crowds all around to hear your statements, your name used in positive ways or your face recognizable wherever you go, how can you keep a sense of true perspective?

What does it mean to be truly humble?  "To know one's place in the world" is a well-supported definition.  To be simple and to reach out to the small and the great.  To respect the dignity of every person despite one's own popularity.  To sit in the lowest place among the "common" people is likely our picture of humility. To serve the needs of others despite a position of authority you may have creates of picture of humility. It conjures up a picture of Blessed Mother Teresa or our own Pope Francis. 

This Sunday our Gospel is a continuation of Jesus teaching his disciples about the full meaning of his ministry and its ultimate end: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise." Often such contradictory statements were spoken by Jesus.  The “Son of Man” was an ancient name for the long awaited Messiah.  And the Messiah would be one to overcome any force against him or the nation.  He would not be a man of weakness or vulnerability.  So to say that he will be arrested and killed is simply out of the question.  As we heard last Sunday: “NO!” Peter exclaims.  May you be spared such a fate.  This doesn't fit with our agenda!

Our second reading from Wisdom foretells the suffering of the “prophet.”  With an almost sarcastic tone we read: “For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes . . . Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him. (Wis 2: 17ff). Let’s call his bluff and challenge his claim! 

Jesus submitted to earthly authority, despite its own corruption, in order to carry out God’s greater plan. A great act of divine humility. That theme is made even more stark as he chooses a child to illustrate not only the true meaning of humility but to show that of discipleship, e.g. servanthood. This in the midst of his own disciples arguing with each other over who will be the greatest in his Kingdom. 

But, that Kingdom has a deep spiritual dimension so as Jesus often did, he choose an example so shocking that one could not possibly miss the point of his teaching. Think of the parable of the prodigal son whose Jewish father behaved far more like a mother in compassion for his son. The parable of the lost sheep – who would leave the flock unguarded in favor of one?  No shepherd would but the Good Shepherd values each individually. 

So, here he chooses a child.  We have to put aside our present culture which seems to do all it can to protect children, at least those outside the womb.  The regulations around child care facilities, the laws protecting children against exploitation and the severe punishment of those who molest are laudable. 

Yet, in ancient times, children had no protections and were akin to slaves.  Child mortality was epidemic and sixty percent of children died before the age of sixteen.  In time of famine, children were fed last before adults.  Disease and poor hygiene were the primary culprits.  Children were the primary care of women; loved yes but also treated severely at times.  For a band which Jesus formed to be compared to children was near insulting so what was his point?

His point is to drive home the model of true discipleship.  It isn’t a complicated one: love for others is lived out in service not domination.  True humility means to know one’s place and the greatest pursuit of any of us who profess faith in Christ is to illustrate that by our lives more than our words.  To choose a person of low status in society, a child, and use that person to teach a lesson on leadership is something that took time to sink in to the minds of his disciples. 

They were likely shocked, embarrassed, confused by Jesus statement about his impending death and rising and to link that with this child left them, as the Gospel tells us: “They did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” (Mk 9: 32).  To bring honor to oneself is measured by my care for others; and not just to serve them but to do so out of love.  Jesus himself is the ultimate model of what that means. 

So, the ever present character of a Christian is once again illustrated in stark example for us. Our gathering for Eucharist is the true encounter with Christ whose ultimate example of service with love was offered on the cross.  The giving of himself for our sake and his real and constant presence in the Eucharist is a testimony not only of his love for us but generates the energy we need to love one another. 

The good that we do in the name of Christ comes back to us one hundred fold.  It’s just the way it works. Only then are we truly a humble people. 

O God, who founded all the commands of your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor,
grant that, by keeping your precepts,
we may merit to attain eternal life. 

(Collect of Sunday)