Nobody ever becomes rich and famous by being righteous. We may never forget who interrupted an awards show or a presidential press conference with an immature comment, but the most truly righteous people will hardly be remembered.
How many people even care about the idea of being righteous? The world is so often full of jealousy and selfish ambition. Indeed, we commend people who make good deals (for themselves, anyway), who get ahead (regardless of the cost), who get rich quick. These people are strong, self-assured, ambitious, and clever. Sometimes they are even entertaining. But would we ever call them righteous? Not very often, I think.
So our idea of who is a person worthy of our admiration needs to change a bit, I think. Jesus puts it very plainly in today’s Gospel: “If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” That, after all, was the way that he lived his life, and the way that he expected his disciples to live as well. This is the Jesus who said goodbye to his disciples by feeding them with his own body and blood and washing their feet. He is the one who cured the sick and preached the word no matter what day it was, Sabbath or not.
Saint James in the second reading urges us all to be truly wise, not covetous and envious and full of hate. He urges us toward the wisdom of the righteous one, the one who has the wisdom from above, who is “first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”
The problem is, though, that the righteous one doesn’t always live a stress-free life. Nice guys, as the proverb goes, tend to finish last. And so, as our first reading tells us, the just one is often seen as an obnoxious irritant to those who do not see with wisdom from above. And so they set out to knock the just one down a peg or two: “With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test,” they say, “that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.”
Jesus knows that just this kind of treatment is in store for him, and he discusses it with the Twelve as they walk along, out of the way of the crowds, so that he might better teach them what is to come. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” But the Twelve, as usual, miss the point. And rather than ask the Teacher what he means, instead they engage in a frivolous argument about who among them is the greatest.
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’s not at all charming.
Jesus says that the way a person becomes first among us is that he or she gives everything, empties himself, becomes the last of all and the servant of all. This is a spiritual principle called kenosis or “self-emptying” that calls the Christian disciple to go deep into himself or herself and to give up all of the back-biting, ambitious attitudes that come so naturally to us fallen people, and instead give everything they have and are for others. This is righteousness, and it comes at a great cost. This is our calling as followers of the Lord.
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.