Fr. Stephen Muller, OCSO
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Is 53:10-11; He 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45
A life lived for others, or a life lived for oneself. We all admire a life lived for others. Mother Teresa of Calcutta struck a chord worldwide. Much of Pope Francis’ appeal is the fact that his actions are not ego-driven.
At our midday meal in the refectory we’ve been listening to the book on tape, A Team of Rivals. One can’t help but notice the contrast between Salmon Chase and Lincoln. Chase had an overweening ambition to become president. This self-centered drive caused him to put others down unjustly in order to further his own cause. He was a back-stabber, and in the run-up to the 1864 election, he very frequently bad-mouthed Lincoln and his administration. These actions made him loathsome to his fellow cabinet members. When he was finally let go from the cabinet, very few saw him off – in contrast to when the same thing happened to Monty Blair.
Lincoln never seemed to let personal slights influence his decisions. He never seemed to operate out of a bruised ego. After his first election, he made up his cabinet of men who had been his rivals. The good of the Republican Party and the good of the nation outweighed any personal vendettas he may have felt. Stanton had snubbed him in Cleveland, but he knew he would make a good Secretary of War. Lincoln had very little personal attraction for Chase, but he knew the nation needed him as Secretary of the Treasury. Even after all that Chase did to him in the election of 1864, Lincoln was still magnanimous enough to name him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And when the war ended, Lincoln wanted no retribution done to the South and its leaders. It was these marks of greatness that helped Lincoln take his place among the list of famous world leaders.
In our gospel reading today we see the sons of Zebedee maneuvering for position. Mark is generally believed to be an earlier Gospel, with Matthew coming a little later. The author of Matthew was embarrassed by this scene, and tried to make the respected apostles James and John look a little better by saying it was their mother who asked Jesus that they might sit at his right and left. The other apostles are justifiably indignant when they hear of this fast move by James and John. Jesus uses the occasion to instruct them to live their lives for others rather than for themselves: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” And he goes on to point out himself as an example, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The beautiful prophecy we heard in our First Reading from Isaiah foretold the Messiah’s life lived for others: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.”
Among wildlife, the parenting instinct is a good example of a life lived for others. Mother birds are often willing to put their own lives in danger in order to save the lives of their young. In liturgical art, we sometimes see the image of a pelican feeding her chicks. I don’t know how true it is, but it is said that if a pelican can’t find any food for her babies, she will pluck out chunks of flesh from her own breast and feed it to them. This symbol was in last week’s Mass booklet, and it is on one of our festive altar cloths.Self-sacrificing, heroic deeds always inspire us. Recently, there were a couple different instances where Americans put their lives in danger for the sake of the many. I’m thinking of the three young men on the train in France who stopped a terrorist. Then, there was Chris Mintz, the army vet in Oregon, who was shot five times trying to stop the shooter at that college. Most of us would have been worrying about how to save our own skin.
It would be interesting to look back over any given day in our lives and assess our actions. If we were to make two parallel columns – one for things done for others, the other for things done for self – which column would have more items in the list? If we’re embarrassed by the findings, it might be the Holy Spirit gently prodding us in the other direction.
I’ve been reading the Last Conversations of Therese of Lisieux. One of her sisters was asking her if she was offering her sufferings up so she wouldn’t have to spend as much time in Purgatory. Therese responded that she never offered prayers or sacrifices or sufferings for herself. She didn’t try to save herself time in Purgatory or increase her merit in heaven. Rather, she offered everything to God for him to use to save souls.
Once again our liturgy presents us with a message and standard to measure ourselves against. God is always urging us and helping us to improve. The more we can redirect our self-love beyond ourselves, the better place the world will be.