Homily: 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B
In general, it seems that boys have a pretty competitive nature. Couple that with a lively imagination and pretty much any situation in which two or more boys find themselves together and somewhat free from close supervision and you can be pretty sure that some sort of competition will emerge. This is certainly not limited to boyhood, of course. Rather, it seems to freely continue well into adulthood (men, am I right?). One of these competitions in which boys always seem to find a way to engage is “king of the hill.”
Whether it’s a jungle gym, a pile of dirt, or even a pile of trash, just the sight of something that can be climbed and conquered seems to awaken inside of a boy a “primal urge” to overcome it. If more than one boy is around, the competition goes beyond just trying to conquer the hill and becomes a competition between boys for who can stay on top of the hill. As soon as one reaches the summit, another seems to come to usurp his claim as king and to claim it as his own. Mostly, of course, this is harmless competition that is good for boys (and, often, girls) to engage in, though I seem to remember that it often ends with scrapes and bruises (and probably a few tears): all in the name of being crowned “king” among your peers.
The Apostles James and John have demonstrated for us today the truth that we really don’t grow out of that competitive spirit as we become adults. While in the Gospels—and particularly the Gospel of Mark—we are often treated with gaffs from their headstrong leader Peter, today we see these two—the sons of Zebedee—sticking their feet into their mouths because they wanted to be crowned “king of the hill.” In a bold move for the summit, they approach Jesus, ask to be given whatever they ask for, and then proceed to lay claim to what they think are the most prominent positions in Jesus’ kingdom: to be seated at his right and at his left. In part, they make a beautiful act of faith, for by asking for the places of honor in Christ’s kingdom, they are affirming their belief that he is a king and that his kingdom will soon be realized. What they revealed, however, is a lack of understanding of what God’s kingdom would look like.
I imagine Jesus giving them one of those looks—you know, when you raise your eyebrow just a bit so as to say, “Are you really asking that?”—and he responds to them saying, “Do you really know what you are asking for? Do you realize what it will demand of you?” James and John, for their part, have already jumped off the cliff and so they realize that if they are going to crash they’re going to do so dramatically and so they respond, “Yes, Lord, we are ready to do it.” Then Jesus hits them with the reality check and says, “Well, regardless you will face what I am getting ready to face, but those positions that you asked for, those aren’t mine to give, so sorry but I can’t promise them to you.”
This exchange, of course, left the other ten Apostles upset at James and John (assumedly because they, too, wanted to be “kings of the hill”) and so Jesus seized this moment to take the opportunity to teach them a lesson about what his kingdom would truly look like. He says that “Leaders of nations use their influence to dominate their people and make their people serve them. But with you it must be different. If you wish to have a prominent place among your peers, learn to serve them. In fact, let the rivalry among you be about who can outdo the other in service. Let my example be your guide: for I, your king, came to be a servant and to lay down my life for others.”
We can imagine that these words hit home for the Apostles, especially James and John. James, we know, became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and the first among the Apostles to be martyred. John, of course, we know as the “beloved disciple” of Jesus who took Mary into his home. Both Apostles left us with inspired writings that demonstrate that what Jesus said that day truly took root in their hearts.
My brothers and sisters, our task here today is to recognize that we are no different than James and John or any of the other Apostles. We all harbor this sense of competition in our hearts and we all have fallen into the trap of wanting to be “king of the hill” so as to “lord it over” those around us. Kids still ask their parents, “Which one of us is your favorite?” Teenagers still strive to obtain and secure their place of prominence among the “cool kids.” Adults still seek to connect themselves to people of influence, such as their boss or the mayor or a state or city representative. And these are not necessarily bad things. It actually seems to be quite natural to want to be connected to people we admire and who have influence in our lives. The challenge for us, however, is in how we use those connections.
My brothers and sisters, in Christ’s kingdom, greatness and power are not measured by the number of people that move according to your will. In other words, you are not great when you stand on top of the hill and proclaim yourself “king.” In Christ’s kingdom, rather, the great ones are those who help others reach the heights of that hill: those who help a kid learn math, or an immigrant learn English, or who give a job to a recovering alcoholic or drug addict, or reach out to a neighbor who just lost her husband after 50 years of marriage, or who invites a friend to Mass who hasn’t been for a really long time. My brothers and sisters, these are the ones who will be greatest in God’s kingdom because they are the ones who have followed the way Christ laid out for us: to serve, not to be served, and to lay down one’s life for others.
Here in late October, embroiled as we are in this “election season”, the battle to be “king of the hill” is dominating our lives. Our task—as Christians and if we are able—is to elect those who seek to serve, not to be served, and then to live that example in our own lives. My brothers and sisters, as we approach this “throne of grace”—on which Christ’s life, laid down for us, is presented to us—we are strengthened to go forth and to lay down our lives for our neighbors. And so let us give thanks for this great gift; and then let us go forth in service to find our place on the hill of God’s kingdom.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – October 20th & 21st, 2018