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Christian Greatness

  • October 17, 2021 (readings)
  • Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
  • Fr. John Bartunek, LC
  • Mark 10:35-45

    James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” He replied, “What do you wish me to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    Opening Prayer: I know you are thinking of me now, wanting to be with me, eager to hear from me and speak to me. As today’s psalm reminds me: See, the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him, upon those who hope for his kindness; to deliver them from death and preserve them in time of famine. I hope in your kindness, and I never want to be separated from you. Please bless this time I spend with you today, guide me, and teach me, O Lord because I put all my trust in you.

    Encountering Christ:

    1. Wimpy Hearts: James and John wanted to be close to Jesus; they wanted to stick with him and play important roles in the building up of his Kingdom. So, they came to him and asked for places of honor in his future court. Jesus didn’t rebuke them for their desire. The desire to be great for Christ, to do great things for Christ’s Kingdom—this is not a sinful desire. Jesus doesn’t squelch it. But he pointed out that true greatness, from his perspective, will emerge only from a truly Christlike lifestyle. Only by “drinking the cup” and “being baptized with the baptism” of Christ himself will James and John earn the reward they seek. In other words, the Resurrection of Easter Sunday is only reached through the Crucifixion of Good Friday. We too have strong desires to do something great with our lives, to bear the eternal fruit that God wants us to bear. And we approach Jesus with these desires. And he says the same to us: Are you willing to join me on the Cross in order to join me in the Resurrection? Are you willing to leave many of your precious attachments behind in order to flourish in my grace?

    2. The Human Factor: St. Mark tells us that the other disciples “became indignant at James and John” because of their forwardness, their desire to be superior to the others in Christ’s Kingdom. We are talking about the Twelve Apostles here. We are talking about the pillars of the Church, the men that Jesus himself–the Son of God, the Word of God–chose specifically to be his closest companions and key messengers. And here we see them squabbling among themselves, infighting, having petty and self-absorbed reactions to each other. If this happened among the Twelve Apostles, why are we surprised that it happens among us, among the leaders of the Church today, among the people at our parish and in our apostolates? Jesus doesn’t have a problem with the flaws of his followers, so why do we so often have a problem with them? Why do we become indignant when a pastor makes a choice we disagree with? Why do we become indignant when our bishop doesn’t do what we think he should do? Why do we become indignant and hypercritical so easily? Jesus doesn’t have a problem with problems; he works through them to advance his Kingdom. Maybe we should prayerfully reflect on why we so often have problems with problems.

    3. True Greatness: Jesus used this argument among his followers as an opportunity to reveal his heart to us. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. This is his standard for greatness: service, giving his life. A great businessman is someone who succeeds visibly and extraordinarily in business. A great politician is someone who succeeds visibly and extraordinarily in politics. But a great Christian–the only greatness that will last beyond the grave and have everlasting implications–may never be visibly extraordinary in anything. The greatness of Christians consists in their faithfulness to Christ, to his will, to his teaching and example. At times this can be dramatic, as in the case of martyrs. At times this can be visible, as when great Christians are also great businessmen, politicians, artists, or inventors. But the essence of greatness, from Our Lord’s perspective, is hidden; it is found in our hearts, hearts given over completely to Christ and his Kingdom. Is that the kind of greatness I am seeking?

    Conversing with Christ: Deep in my heart, I find a strong desire to do something truly worthwhile with my life. I want my life to have meaning and to make a lasting contribution. This desire, I know, comes from you. This is how you made me. But I can see that this desire often leads me to make choices based on vanity and arrogance. I can easily forget that true greatness isn’t the same as the greatness portrayed all day and every day in popular culture. Purify my mind and my heart, Lord, so that I always want what you want and see clearly how to get it.

    Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will perform at least one concrete act of service without looking for any recognition from anyone except yourself. 

    For Further Reflection: Read Joseph Badaracco’s article on “quiet leadership’ (this is not a specifically Christian article, but it provides excellent food for thought).


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