Righteousness, peace the reward of opening up to God

  • September 21, 2009
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 20 (Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37)

What did the righteous and upright man do to deserve persecution, torture and death? Precisely that — he was upright and righteous. Those who lie in wait for him secretly desire what he has: inner peace, integrity and a close relationship with God. His goodness makes them squirm and feel uncomfortable. They feel the sting of what they could and should be and the reality of what they are. They could have all of those things if they would walk the same path that he does, but then they would have to let go of their own selfish ways.

It is far easier to bring him down and even in our own lifetimes we have seen far too many good and upright people persecuted or murdered. In addition to violence, our own culture has a more subtle form of bringing people down: deconstructing the goodness of others. Either being unable or unwilling to believe in someone’s goodness, we look for their flaws and other evidence of imperfection and humanity and then exploit it to the full. The good they have done is minimized or overlooked and their flaws are magnified or blown out of proportion. This is evident in politics, religion, culture and everyday life. There are so many ways to snuff out the good in the world with negativity and cynicism and this flows from our fear of allowing the good to challenge and inspire us.

James insists that craving and desire are the source of so much strife, violence and murder. He has lots of company. It is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism that craving is the source of human suffering and negativity, and the solution is to disentangle oneself from these desires through meditation, self-discipline and the exercise of compassion. The Catholic philosopher René Girard sees competitive desire and envy at the root of almost all of society’s violence. We desire something because someone else possesses or values it. When the conflict and tension generated by such competition and desire reaches an unbearable level, a scapegoat — an individual or group — is selected for persecution or violence in the belief that their demise will solve the problem. It has been said that the only sin is self and the desires that it generates. The solution for that sin is love directed to others. James promises that when we open ourselves to God’s spirit and live by divine wisdom, righteousness and peace are the rewards.

The human ego is again at work in the Gospel story as the disciples of Jesus argue over which one of them is the greatest. They have proven by these actions that they have merely been along for the ride during their journey with Jesus. They have not understood what He has taught or what He is about and were certainly clueless about the meaning of His impending passion and death. His response to them must have been both puzzling and shocking: the greatest is the one who is last and the servant of all. It goes against so much of what makes up the human personality: competition, dominance, recognition and self-promotion.

To drive the point home Jesus uses the example of a child. Welcoming a child will not advance one’s standing in a culture based on the competition for honour. A child has no status nor can it repay the favour. There are no markers that can be called in. By renouncing partiality and favouritism, disciples are to welcome a child as if the child were Jesus Himself. Kindness extended to those who are powerless and marginalized in society is kindness extended not only to Jesus but also to God the Father.

Deflating the hungry human ego is hard work but is something we should pay a lot more attention to. If we do not, then even the good we do becomes contaminated with self-seeking and selfish desire. Naked selfishness and lust for power can easily cloak itself in religious language and symbols and unfortunately this is a reality that is still very much with us. The spirituality that Jesus imparted to His followers was intended to bring about a profound interior change. True disciples are those who govern their lives by the law of love and who strive to be men and women for others.