Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
Today’s readings present us with the question “Why is there suffering?” For those of us who believe there is a God, the question then becomes “Why does God permit suffering? Does God inflict suffering upon us, as some scripture passages suggest, or is suffering permitted by God due to the nature of the world He has created?
Given the fact that I have only ten or fifteen minutes in which to address those questions, I will not even attempt to answer them here. Any answers I might give you in this short period of time would be simplistic at best, thus inviting simplistic responses, all of which would not be helpful us and would only expose us to ridicule from those who do not believe in God at all.
I will therefore deal today with the question “How do we respond to the fact of suffering?” Do we respond passively and simply stoically accept suffering when it comes our way, or do we actively face it and even enter into it so as to come out on the other side as better persons because of suffering? The Christian response is the latter. If Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday have any meaning at all for us, they call us to enter upon Christ’s path through suffering into a new, higher and better life. Hope in the face of loss, pain and suffering is the greatest gift Christian can offer those around us, living as we all do in a world that many times seems hopeless. We offer people around us the wonderful gift of hope.
We need to get fully into the scene just depicted in today’s gospel account. Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem where He will suffer and die. The picture of all of the horror He faces is fully before His eyes. He is beginning to give His last teachings and utter His last words to His disciples. He is pensive and quite concerned about what He will leave behind with those who have been His closest disciples over the past three years.
Jesus has evidently decided not to pull any punches with them. He’s telling them straight out what’s going to happen. He’s going to Jerusalem, He tells them, to suffer, be crucified, and die in order to enter into a new life. It is a terribly tender and poignant scene.
As soon as He has poured out His heart to them, two of His closest disciples, James and John, ask Him for places of privilege. Instead of asking what they could do for him, they ask Him what He can do for them. They want to bask in fame and share in Christ’s greatness, ruling it over others like kings along with Him.
It’s hard to imagine the insensitivity manifested by James and John. Jesus is struggling with what it means to be the Suffering Servant for others in obedience to His Father’s wishes, and James and John decide this is just the time for them to make their selfish and self-centered bids for power. They seem to be looking for fame at any price, ignoring any thought of greatness.
But just what constitutes human greatness? What makes any human being a great person?
When you examine the lives of many great human beings, one thing you will notice is how many of them faced suffering in their own personal lives. Some faced great suffering. Mother Teresa of Calcutta comes to mind. So does St. Therese of Lisieux, Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig van Beethoven, to mention only a few. I’m almost tempted to claim that all great men and women have had to deal with personal suffering, but I really cannot make that claim with any degree of certitude. Suffice it to say that personal suffering is a common theme found in the lives of many of our great men and women, and how they dealt with it was a significant factor in making them great.
Most of these great figures were not born into or simply given position, privilege, power, wealth, fame or beauty, although a few of them did in fact have some privileges given them simply by birth. Many of our great personages would tell us that they did not earn these things – that they did little, if anything, to acquire them because luck played such an important role in their lives. They happened to be in the right place and the right time.
But what about their greatness? Was that given them? Did it come to them by chance? I think not. Greatness has something to do with how one shapes his or her own soul. Greatness comes to those whose hearts are filled with compassion, who have developed extraordinary generosity, who live their lives in self-sacrificing service toward others. Greatness flows from great hearts, from greatness of soul, most of the time in great adversity. In their suffering they learn generosity of spirit.
Great human beings form partnerships with others. Greatness has much more to do with partnering than it does with prominence, position, power or privilege.
We must never confuse greatness with fame. Beauty? Well, many beautiful women have had hard and cruel hearts. Fame? Many a rock star has been little more than a jerk when it comes to relating to and living with others. Many in positions of power and privilege have used their good fortune to advance themselves, satisfy their lusts for money, sex and power, and then lord it over others unfortunate enough to live around them, others who have to live with them in misery, hurt and pain. No, fame is not the same as greatness.
Greatness costs – it usually comes after periods of great pain and suffering. Beethoven wrote his greatest symphony when he was stone deaf as a result of lead poisoning. Can you drink of that cup filled with the costly blood of pain and suffering? When you look below the surface into the lives of so very many of the great people who have lived among us, you will discover the cross and the cup of poured out blood that come with pain and suffering.
There is an enormous difference between power and authority. Power is the ability to coerce people to do things. Power comes when you force folks to obey you. Authority, on the other hand, comes from within a person. Authority is related to the word “author” – it’s something that comes out of a person’s character, soul and personality.
A person that is known to always tell the truth has authority. A person well known to be caring for others speaks with authority. A person who is self-sacrificing, generous, compassionate, kind and considerate has a tremendous amount of authority. A person genuinely involved with others, in partnership with others, speaks with authority. People listen to and pay attention to such as these.
The Last Supper was no picnic. What was given us here in this sacred banquet was given to us at a terrible cost. It came to us with Christ’s love and desire to be your partner throughout life. He wants to be yoked to you and thus help you pull your load through life. But more than that, He wants to be totally and completely a part of you. He wants His body to become your body — His blood to mingle with yours. He wants to give Himself to you completely, to share His life in yours and your life in His. His is a life of involvement, self-sacrificing service and commitment to care for you and to love you forever.
Anyone who would be great must follow that model – there is no other pattern or model for us, if we want to be great human beings.
Years ago when John F. Kennedy was being inaugurated as our president he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask, rather, what you can do for your country.” Those words are on my mind when I listen to the presidential debates and hear all of the rhetoric of the candidates for political office. Is it a question of what the government will give us? Is it a question of what we can get from those elected to political office? Where is the challenge for greatness?
Finally, you and I need to ask ourselves how we can become greater Christians. I need to challenge you as I was once challenged. “Be an extraordinary Christian – we have enough of ordinary ones.” Be ambitious for the higher gifts and seek greatness. Don’t settle for cheap fame. Fame is fickle; fame is fleeting. Greatness is lasting – something that you can take with you into the next life as well as a legacy you can leave with those who have known you and loved you.