In some ways, it's the classic schoolyard disagreement. "My dad can beat up your dad." Or, even better, maybe it's the classic sibling rivalry: "Mom likes me best." These things are sort of understandable among children. Children growing up need to know where they fit in to the structure of society, so there are a lot of comparisons going on all the time. But when that kind of argument begins to take place among adults, it loses all its charm. When that kind of disagreement happens among disciples, it begins to become sinful.
In today's Gospel, Jesus has just told his disciples what, up to now, has been a secret of his life among them. He is to be arrested, killed, and to rise again. The disciples of course had no idea what he meant. They thought of him as the Messiah, and in their notion of what the Messiah was, that kind of end didn't fit in at all. They expected the Messiah to reign triumphant and restore primacy to Israel. The Messiah was not to suffer and die. Yet that, Jesus says, is exactly the kind of Messiah that he was to be. They also did not understand about him rising from the dead. The notion of life after death was not widely accepted at that time, so we can certainly excuse them from that. All in all, it would take Jesus' actual death and Resurrection before the disciples would understand any of this at all.
But what is most surprising about today's Gospel is that, given that they did not understand what Jesus was talking about, they didn't bother to ask him what he meant. Maybe they had gotten used to some of Jesus' words going over their heads. Maybe they were afraid of the Teacher's rebuke. Whatever the reason, they decided to let it go. But what happens next is what is most unfortunate. Instead of seeking clarification on an important issue for their discipleship, they have an argument about who was the greatest among them! It's one thing not to understand, but quite another to let it go and then act like children.
Jesus, however, is the Good Teacher, and uses the opportunity not to rebuke them – although they certainly deserved a rebuke – but instead to teach them the importance of kenosis. Kenosis is Greek for "self-emptying" or pouring out, as in a libation or drink-offering. And this is what ties the second half of the Gospel reading together with the first half. Jesus was going to have to empty himself by laying down his life. Just so, the disciple would have to empty him or herself by becoming the last of all and the servant of all. In this instruction, Jesus turns the whole social ranking system upside-down. He places a child among them. A child in that society had no rights or status whatsoever. Women and children only had the status or rights given by the men in society, a husband or father. But Jesus says that it is only by becoming a child, that is, by pouring out oneself, that one has status in the Kingdom of God. Only the one who is the last of all and the servant of all can become the greatest of all.
The readings today talk about righteousness, that is, a right relationship with God and others that comes from an interior quality of transparency, integrity and grace. It would turn the whole schoolyard disagreement upside down if children were to argue: "My father is more righteous than your father." Or, "My mother has more integrity than your mother." But the fact is, righteousness matters very little to anyone these days. Think about what we do value: people who entertain us, even by their own misdeeds; athletic ability, even if the person needs some steroids or illicit substances to get there; political power, even if there is corruption behind it. I think about the rather unfortunate person of Lance Armstrong who was lauded for his ability to overcome cancer and win several Tours de France, but immediately turned away from the wife who was faithful to him during his battle with cancer the moment she contracted cancer herself. Will we remember his lack of righteousness, or will we more likely remember his cycling triumphs?
If righteousness is hardly valued, the first reading indicates that righteousness is hardly tolerated. The just one, whoever it is, has accused the members of his or her own community of their own lack of righteousness. They have been accused of violating the law and turning away from the way they had been taught. Rather than calling them back to their senses, this has angered them and caused them to consider doing violence to the just one. Yes, the just one could withstand the shameful death the others planned, because God would care for the just one. This leads me to a point that I made in my lecture to the CREEDS group this past week. One of my instructors used to tell us that we must always love what Jesus loved when he was on the Cross, and despise what Jesus despised while he hung there in agony. If God would care for the just one, then we disciples had better care for him or her too. And, we disciples had better listen to that just one, even if the just one's teaching means a change in our behavior and way of life.
The second reading from the letter of St. James makes this all very practically clear. Righteousness leads to a wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity or anything of that sort. Righteousness leads to true peace. It is the lack of righteousness that leads to wars of all sorts. Covetousness, envy, violence, fighting and war – all these are the result of forgetting righteousness and not attaining the kind of wisdom that comes from that right relationship with God and others. And all of this nonsense is ultimately unfulfilling. Listen to James again:
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Will all of this bickering and fighting ever get us anyplace? No, because all of this is "asking wrongly," out of passion instead of righteousness.
What will it take, then, for us to start getting this right? How will we ever achieve peace in our world, peace in our communities, peace in our families and peace in our hearts? What will it take to become the first of all, to attain real greatness in the Kingdom of God? "If anyone wishes to be first, he or she shall be the last of all and the servant of all." It's all about kenosis, brothers and sisters in Christ. We have to realize that our salvation will only come about by pouring out our lives for our brothers and sisters. We may think we can become number one by looking out for number one only. We may think we can get ahead by tending to our own interests first and foremost. But Jesus tells us today that quite the opposite is true. To become number one, to really get ahead, we must serve all of our brothers and sisters. We must lay down our lives in every way possible and raise up others whenever we see them down. Getting this right, becoming truly righteous, will involve us tending to the needs of others first and foremost, knowing that God will take care of the just one.