Last of all and servant of all
(Readings: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday contrast our human tendency to look for superior status over others, to create pecking-orders, and the Kingdom of God, where there's no pecking order and where - as Jesus puts it - the person who wants to be first has to make himself last of all and the servant of all.
So to begin Mass let's apologise to God for all the times when we haven't taken that aspect of his Rule seriously enough, and ask for his grace to re-shape and re-form our intentions and attitudes.
Power isn't just something that's wielded by the politicians or the heads of great commercial conglomerates - people we might automatically describe as "powerful". The will to power is a basic motive that influences everyone.
The desire to have things, to accumulate and possess material objects, is a deep-rooted drive in our fallen human nature and so is the desire to control people and situations, to dictate or manipulate things to get the results we want. Whenever people act out of personal ambition or push themselves forward, or try to manage situations so that they look cleverer or more talented or in any way superior to others, they're acting out of this basic power motive.
Most of the time we don't notice it because it's so fundamental, it's second nature. At least it's second nature in our consumer capitalist society, where we're taught to value acquisitiveness and competition and to glamorise wealth and material success.
One of the basic assumptions in our type of society is that we all have an inviolable right to pursue our own self-interest, and that doing so successfully - getting what we want, in other words, and very often defeating others in the process - is the road to happiness. Conversely, people are often miserable and resentful if their desires are frustrated - if they end up "losers" rather than "winners".
When human relations are reduced to a competition for power over each other, conflict is the inevitable result, and when this happens we usually like to rationalise our real motives and persuade ourselves that we're doing something because it's right on principle, rather than just an assertion of our own will. Even with the people we're closest to this power motive constantly comes in, and we play games, competing against each other in various ways, some less subtle than others.
In the gospel today this is what Jesus' disciples are doing.
The disciples were close friends. I think we would be right to assume that there was a lot of affection and fraternal feeling and solidarity among them. But then there was this other element: "who's the greatest?" They wanted to know: "What's the pecking order, and who's at the top?"
Jesus' answer is to set a child in front of them, but that doesn't mean he was recommending childishness. Obviously there was a quality about children that Jesus liked but when he chose his followers he chose adults, because the mature judgement that adults are capable of is necessary for a grown-up faith. So when he told the disciples to be like a child he wasn't advocating childishness, or even the naivety of childhood.
The quality children have that Jesus was recommending was - for the want of a better way of putting it - simplicity: being free from the calculating motives that are at work in so many adult relationships and accepting the subordination and "smallness" inherent in childhood.
His suggestion isn't that some people should be willing servants while others take advantage of them. Christís teaching aims to create a situation in the Christian community where every member acts as the servant of everyone else, so that the power motive, and relationships of superiority and inferiority, are abolished altogether.
What Jesus is recommending to his followers is that they adopt a mentality that liberates them from the sorts of motivations Saint James talks about in the second reading: "You want something and you haven't got it....You have an ambition that you can't satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force", you're praying for the wrong things, asking God to indulge your own desires, and so on.
Being free from those sorts of motives isn't being childish. It's being an adult with the right priorities and the kind of detachment from corrupting influences which contact with God imparts to us.
To love, to tell the truth, to treat other people with kindness and compassion and consideration, as Saint James puts it - is more grown-up than getting our own way by honing our expertise in the manipulative strategies that we all learn as we get older - strategies that actually show how retarded we are morally and spiritually, how far we remain locked in the prison of our own selfishness.
Of course a mentality rooted in worldly ideas of happiness is never able to comprehend this. For people absorbed in the struggle to win and come out on top, Jesus' talk about deliberately making ourselves last of all and servant of all - deliberately choosing the role of service of others - is thoroughly bizarre.
It's only when people have already gone some way in a process of spiritual conversion, that they start to see material success, status and power, and the assertiveness needed to achieve those goals, as obstacles to their real happiness.
It's only once we've taken the first steps on the pilgrimage towards God that we start to see the need to embrace the qualities of service, willing powerlessness, smallness - which are so unattractive from the worldly point of view - as the means of enlightenment and closer union with God.
In the second reading Saint James goes on to declare that the qualities he mentions are worth praying for. Genuine prayer strengthens and deepens our friendship with God and the more that happens, the more God re-shapes and re-forms our desires and motives.
Maybe one way of describing the spiritual life, then, is that it's a way of growing in a second innocence.
We know the ways of the world, we know that we're influenced by selfish motives and we know that other people are as well. But under God's influence, our corrupt motives are undone, selfish patterns of behaviour are unlearned. In that sense we gradually learn how make ourselves "last of all and servant of all".
Those are the aspects of this Sunday's readings I would emphasise.
As followers of Christ - believers in the power of God's grace to change our motives and our characters even in their most deeply-rooted tendencies - the readings this Sunday invite us to look inside ourselves and to admit the extent to which we're influenced by the desire for power. They invite us to recognise the way it's encouraged by the culture we live in.
And finally they invite us to turn to God and to ask him to free us from the will to power and to replace it with the spirit of simplicity and a "will to serve" instead.