On Monday the gospel made it clear that happiness is ours only if we love the Lord with all our mind, heart, soul and strength. When the rich man heard it, he went away sad because of his attachment to his wealth. He managed to observe all the Ten Commandments by avoiding sin. However, eternal life and joy is more than just not falling into sin, but living a life of selfless love in freedom. This vocation to live a life of freedom in love was elaborated in yesterday’s gospel as a call to sacrifice. However, it is not sufficient just to offer sacrifices unless these are given from a pure and loving heart.
Ironically, neither the rich man nor the disciples could find the courage to surrender their desire for wealth and power. Indeed, the disciples’ response was very calculative. Peter asked Jesus, “What about us who have left everything to follow you?” Following Jesus was seen in terms of an investment. It was not purely done out of joy and love. So absorbed were they in their pursuit of wealth and power that they were completely insensitive to the sentiments of Jesus. Instead of taking the somber prophecy of His imminent death with sympathy, they reacted as if they did not hear what Jesus said about His impending suffering and death in Jerusalem.
As the evangelist noted, “they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive.” Indeed, until the very last days of their master’s life on earth, they were ignorant of what Jesus wanted to impart to them about authentic and life-giving service. Today we see their thoughtlessness to Jesus’ emotional state, for they continued to squabble over power, position and glory, even after hearing about His coming tragic death. If we were Jesus, we would have been so terribly hurt. What if you were in pain and dying, and you see your children fighting over your wealth instead of caring for you?
So, before we reproach James and John for seeking glory and status, we must realize that we, too, are no better than them. We must realize that the ego of the human person is extremely subtle. Man basically is an insecure and proud animal. He is always anxious about his future and wealth, which he mistakes for his security to live. At the same time, he is very proud of himself and desperately seeks recognition, which he mistakes as love.
Thus, it would be extremely naive of us to think that service to the Lord is always done out of pure motives. The truth is that even when serving the Lord, we have different motives, some basically for our own interest. Even the disciples initially followed Jesus and served Him for some prospective earthly reward. So if we search deeply into ourselves at the services we render to others, and with humility aided by the revelation of God who lights up all things that are in darkness, we will come to realize that our motives in serving the Lord, our commitment to Church ministries, or helping the poor, are at best, ambiguous. In some ways, too, we expect some reward, if not tangible, at least, we hope for some recognition and appreciation.
So, even in service and good works, whether within or without the Church, the desire and temptation for recognition, power, glory and wealth are still latent in our hearts. The old Adam still lives in us, dormant, even if he does not reign in us. So let us not think that our love is so pure and unconditional. We must therefore always be alert and conscious of the origin of our good works.
The irony is that if we are searching for the real kingdom of love, joy and freedom, then the truth is that no one, not even Jesus Himself, can give us the earthly kingdom that we seek in life. That is why Jesus told the disciples, “But sitting at my right or my left is not mine to give; that is for those whom it has been reserved.” Why is that so? Jesus did not come to give us worldly happiness, which is an illusion. The greatest power is not to rule over others and dominate them. If power is not used for selfless service and the promotion of justice, peace and unity, then we would be destroyed by such power, as we can see in current political developments where dictators are being overthrown by popular uprising.
So why are people not responding to the real kingdom that Jesus is preparing for us? The answer is simple: because people are too blind to see what the real kingdom is. For Jesus, the real kingdom does not lie in gaining more power, wealth and glory. The kingdoms of this world cannot give us real joy and meaning in life because they only bring emptiness and isolation. A person who has power, wealth and glory is always afraid to lose them. Such people can never enter the kingdom. They will be miserable from the beginning till the end, because of fear. That is why Jesus remarked that whichever way the disciples choose, they would surely drink the cup that He has to drink, and be baptized in the same bath of pain as Him. The only difference is that some suffer on account of their own folly whilst others suffer for the sake of humanity.
However, those who choose freely to drink the cup and be baptized with Him in the same bath of pain, sharing His love for humanity and for God, would surely sit at His right and left when He enters into His glory. This is the only way to the kingdom. Jesus made it clear that He was going up to Jerusalem to be killed. In Mark’s theology, Jerusalem would be the place where the kingdom of God would be established. In other words, for Jesus, He has attained the real kingdom in His heart, for He has already conquered the fear of even His own death. He knew that His death would be the final and decisive testimony to His love for the Father and for us.
Of course, most of us would not be ready to surrender ourselves completely to Jesus unto death just yet. We might be ready to take up the cross but not yet ready to be crucified. Still, this invitation to the cross and death would be an essential condition for entry into the kingdom. This invitation to death for most of us would necessarily be exercised in selfless love and service for others. But that is not all. This service has to be given with humility. We are not here to lord over others, or, as Jesus said, to exercise our authority in such a way that we make our importance felt. Nay, we are called to put others always before us, knowing that our first priority is to serve the needs of others. If authority and power is not used for the good of others, there is no reason why we should desire to hold on to an office that causes more harm, destruction and disunity simply because of our pride and ego. We recall the words of Jesus, “No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
But we need not despair in acknowledging how imperfect we are in serving Him completely; limited as we are in our capacity to love. The Good news is that He is patient with us, teaching us slowly to let go. He accepts whatever deficient motives or love we can give to Him. But that does not mean that we resign ourselves to the state we are in. Rather, we need to take serious steps to purify our motives further through self awareness and prayer; and expand our capacity to love more by growing in generosity and compassion. Through our own personal struggles, we will gradually die to ourselves and become wiser and more enlightened, as the apostles did after the resurrection of Christ, so that we can truly see that the real kingdom does not lie in a worldly life but in a simple and self-forgetful life of love and service.
So in humility we make the prayer from the book of Sirach ours, asking God to help us, just as He helped the people in the post-Exilic time who were struggling with the oppressions and trials in their lives from their enemies. Like the psalmist we pray, “Show us, O Lord, the light of your kindness. Remember not against us the iniquities of the past; may your compassion quickly come to us, for we are brought very low.” And we can be confident that God is merciful towards us. We can be confident in His grace at work in our lives. Like Sirach, we ask, “Send new portents, do fresh wonders, win glory for your hand and your right arm. Grant, Lord, the prayer of your servants … so that all the earth’s inhabitants may acknowledge that you are the Lord, the everlasting God.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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