Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
After we were born our parents found days and months of sheer delight as they cuddled us, held us, played with us, and watched us become little persons. Each boasted of the characteristics they saw in us that they were sure came from their own genes. In generous moments they gave attribution to the other parent or the other parent’s family.
It was not long, however, that our parents had to begin dealing with something within us that I can only describe as “The Imperial Self.” We all had one, you know – and still do! And what is amazing is how soon that Imperial Self asserts itself after we’ve been given life. The darling, lovable baby soon strives to become self-willed and demanding. In that emergence the words “I,” “me,” and “mine” become no longer descriptive, they become imperious. Our parents soon became more willing to break the wills of those little wild horses by trying to put bit and bridle on their willful little egos.
Then came middle and later childhood. Once again our parents were given days and years of delight, happiness, and exchanged love in those pre-teen years. Ah, those were the days! But then came the teen years.
I wish I could ignore even mentioning the teenage years. But, of course, I can’t. In those years in which our Imperial Self acquired muscle, muscle along with learned techniques to exert power and control. Emotional blackmail was employed; appeals to what “everybody else” is thinking, saying or doing were brought to bear. Maybe even threats of leaving were issued. Each one of us developed our own arsenal of weapons to be deployed by the Darth Vader within us.
And the result? Well, mixed of course.
Some of us still carry scars from those days. Some parents never fully recovered from those wounds. Still other families were relatively undamaged. In our teen years many if not most of us learned good lessons and have long since gone on to having wonderful, loving relationships with our parents and siblings. We have learned how to manage and contain our Imperial Selves as well as forever junking those emotional weapons of mass destruction that we employed back then.
Unfortunately there are those individuals who are thirty, forty, and fifty-year-old teenagers. There are those who are remain, decades later, tyrannical infants who must win at all costs.
Winning and being a winner are deeply imbedded in our American culture; they are a national pastime. All one need do is observe our obsession with media superstars and sports heroes. Getting all “A’s” while we are in school becomes another obsession for us. Our parents are often our worst enemies in this regard. We strive to win at all costs.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we should not pursue excellence, that we should not develop our talents, and not use our talents and abilities to strive to be highest and best that we can be. That sort of end goal is laudable and good. It is the means to that end that can devastate those around us and ruin our own souls.
Self-concern has its moments and its aspects of legitimacy. But self-assertion that seeks to dominate and control others, to employ techniques of coercion and emotional blackmail, quickly takes us into demeaning and degrading others. Whoever said that one ascends a ladder by pushing others down to the lower rungs? Does one better one’s self by putting down others? The politics of personal destruction only lead to our own self-destruction.
The will to dominate and control others, even God, is the subject of today’s Gospel account. As a priest I’ve encountered more than a few souls who are angry at God because He didn’t do exactly as they expected, because He didn’t dance to their tune.
One of the saddest observations I have when looking out at our surrounding culture is to see how many people are degrading and demeaning the goodness and holiness found in others. The first reading in today’s Mass, taken from the book of Wisdom, speaks in part to that. But we should pay attention to the entire passage, not just the passage we heard. The complete reading is as follows. Note how aptly it describes the attitudes of so many in today’s world.
“Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are real, and use the freshness of creation avidly.
Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no springtime blossom pass us by; let us crown ourselves with rosebuds ere they wither.
Let no meadow be free from our wantonness; everywhere let us leave tokens of our rejoicing, for this our portion is, and this our lot.
Let us oppress the needy just man; let us neither spare the widow nor revere the old man for his hair grown white with time.
But let our strength be our norm of justice; for weakness proves itself useless.
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD.
To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, because his life is not like other men’s, and different are his ways.
He judges us debased; he holds aloof from our paths as from things impure.
He calls blest the destiny of the just and boasts that God is his Father.
Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.
With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.”
These were their thoughts, but they erred; for their wickedness blinded them, and they knew not the hidden counsels of God; neither did they count on a recompense of holiness nor discern the innocent souls’ reward.
For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are in his possession experience it. (Wisdom 2:6-24)
There is another point I would like to consider with you. It has to do with being child-like. I suspect many people are thrown off by a misinterpretation of what Jesus means when He asks us to be as little children. He is not asking us to be childish. Nor is He asking us to be passive-dependent persons, or mindless, unthinking robots who have no initiative and are not self-actuating. Far from it! Naiveté does not constitute one as a child of God.
What Jesus is asking of us is to be “teachable,” to stop thinking we know everything there is to know about religion, God, the Church, the bible and all of the other things of God. Just because we completed our religious education programs when we were young, and just because we have received the Sacrament of Confirmation, doesn’t mean we have nothing more to learn about what God wants of us. People have gone on to earn doctorate degrees in theology still lose their souls! People who graduated from our nation’s finest Business Schools have gone on to pillage the coffers of some our major corporations and empty out the retirement accounts of countless retirees who gave their lives in working for those corporations. Knowledge may give us some power, but knowledge by itself cannot save us.
It is sometimes said that you cannot be a good businessman or businesswoman and at the same time be an observant Christian. I think that in order to succeed in business you should put Christian principles into practice. Stop and think about it. Are not those businesses that best serve their customers the most successful businesses? Five family members who belonged to Sam Walton’s family have benefited from that principle to the extent that each one of them today is a billionaire! Jesus’ admonition: “If anyone wants to be first he must be the servant of all” seems to make practical sense to me. Having served the interests of their customers, Wal-Mart Corporation as well as many other business enterprises are spectacular successes. Those businesses that have not delivered quality service have either failed or are about to fail. Self-aggrandizement at the expense of exploiting, demeaning, and degrading others, customers and employees as well, is not the road to success in this life or the next. Those in our world who are closed to learning what Wisdom, Truth, and the Word of God reveal to us are likewise on the road to failure.
Are we willing to take the road less traveled?