29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
2006


This is not how it must be among you!
(Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21)
Introduction to Mass
The passage that we've got from Saint Mark for this Sunday's Gospel reading contains some instructions by Jesus on what discipleship consists of. God's nature, as Jesus revealed it, is one of service and the willing renunciation of power, and we have to imitate these same qualities if we want to claim our share in the life of God.
So for all the times when we've been domineering and treated other people in an inferior way, we ask God for his pardon and healing.
Homily
The first reading this Sunday, a passage from the prophet Isaiah, contains an image which the first communities of Christians quickly adapted to refer to Christ - the "suffering servant" of God who gives up his life to atone for the sins of others. The letter to the Hebrews, in the second reading, points in the same direction using different images.
But when we come to the gospel passage we move into a section of Saint Mark's gospel where Mark is talking more about what we have to do to follow Christ rather than about Christ himself or his mission. It's a section about discipleship, in other words, and what discipleship of Christ consists of.
For Christ, of course, our whole vocation as human beings is to be like God. The whole point of discipleship is to lead us into sharing God's life as closely as possible. So there was a pattern in Jesus' teaching when it came to instructing his followers about what discipleship involved, what it's demands were.
First of all he described what God was like. He would talk about what God's attitudes were, God's way of looking at the world, God's ways of thinking and feeling, almost.
And then he'd say to his followers: this is what you are called to be like. These are the attitudes and the outlook that you're called to adopt. These are the ways of thinking and feeling that make you like God - or make you a citizen of God's Kingdom, to use Jesus' own image.
At this particular point in their acquaintance with Jesus, the way that Mark tells the story, the circle of Jesus' closest companions has already reached the conclusion that Jesus was more than just an ordinary preacher. By this time Peter had already had his great well-known insight that Jesus was the Messiah or the Son of God.
But also by this time Jesus had already warned them that his mission was going to culminate in his suffering and death - and it's this aspect of his teaching that still hadn't sunk in. On this occasion two of the disciples are entertaining notions of exercising great power under some future reign of God. "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left".
And when Christ hears this, what he proposes in his reply to them is no more than what he had already put before them, even if it hadn't made much impression: that God's nature is determined completely by qualities of kindness and pity, and the absence of all self-interested motives. God has no desire to gather power and glory for himself. That's a very human and inaccurate idea of what God is like. In reality God's way is the way of service, not domination or 'lording it over people, as the pagans do'.
Christ makes his point here by drawing a distinction between the ethos of God's Reign and the domineering style of government that worldly tyrants are fond of. And again, for the benefit of his followers, he draws the conclusion: if this is what God is like, that's what you're called to be like as well.
If we were to look back through the long history of the Church, or even if we were to look around at the Church in different parts of the world today, I think we would have to admit that this aspect of Christ's teaching isn't one that the Christian community has always been rigidly faithful to, to say the least.
As an institution, or perhaps more in the person of its office-holders, the Church has often given in to the seductions of worldly power, rather than embracing this principle of servanthood which Christ puts forward as a fundamental gospel value. And whenever the Church has cosied up to worldly power, especially when itís corrupt and oppressive, a number of things follow.
For a start, the Church is disabled, or loses all its force, as a credible sign of the Kingdom. Sincere men and women - searchers after spiritual truth - reject the Christian message and look elsewhere for values of truth and integrity.
I believe myself that we're still paying the price for the way that, in recent centuries, in the traditional heartlands of Christianity, the Christian faith was turned into an ideology of the ruling classes. Christianity was used to impart an air of divine authority to the property relations and the divisions of wealth and class that existed in society. Something similar is true of the role that the Catholic Church played historically in the dictatorships of South America and Latin America.
Apart from the fact that that involves a great betrayal of Christ's actual teaching by the Church community, it also has the effect of turning all the people who want to fight against poverty and inequality into atheists. That's part of the story at least of the great revolt against religion in the Western world.
But of course we don't have to look to the history of nineteenth-century Europe or Latin America for examples of the Church betraying this basic principle. The fact is that most of us, in our own small ways, in our own life of discipleship, are just as reluctant very often to take it on as James and John were.
Every time the relationships between individual believers, or between members of Christian families or Christian groups and organisations, are distorted by the desire to press our own advantage and to dominate others - even on a small scale - there's a failure to embrace this particular Kingdom value and a failure to live up to the calling that we have to imitate God and resemble God.
And again, all that does in the long term is sabotage the efforts by faithful sections of the Church to win people to the authentic message of the gospel.
So those would be my reflections on this particular instruction that Jesus gives here on the nature of discipleship. Whatever our circumstances are, or whatever situation we're in, we've all got the same basic calling to be like God, to resemble him more and more.
A big part of that is to get rid of any notions, like those James and John seemed to entertain, that God himself is some sort of domineering ruler, and to embrace the real God instead, the God that Jesus revealed by his own renunciation of power and by his consistent practice of servanthood.