Before I entered the seminary, I used to work in Washington, D.C., and one of the most frustrating things about the social scene was that inevitably, when you met somebody, after the exchange of names, the first question that you were asked was, “What do you do?” or “Who do you work for?” In a town that has an infatuation with prestige, position, rank, and power, the question, “What do you do?” was really asking, “What can you do for me?” It’s not what you know, but who you know that matters. Political power, influence, and advancement are mostly determined by the perception of greatness – who’s the most connected, who has access or influence with those in power or those who make the decisions. As a result, there is a lot of talk about who is the greatest – what high-powered meetings one was at, what great deal or piece of legislation one was able to get pushed through, who you know, and what you’ve done. What often goes hand in hand with puffing oneself up is putting one’s opponent or the competition down. You especially hear this type of talk during election season or at the change of an administration when everybody is jockeying for votes or for a position in the new power structure.
The Apostles in today’s gospel looked at the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing from a political mindset – that is why they were discussing among themselves who was the greatest. They were debating who would have the highest place – the closest rank with the Lord – when the change in administration – the new power structure – would come in with Christ’s kingdom. They had taken our Lord’s manifestation of his power – the many miracles, healings, casting out of demons – the wrong way. They were thinking the way the world thinks. That is why they were dumbfounded when Jesus predicts his passion: that “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him.” A leader who suffers and dies didn’t compute with their worldly idea of the Messianic King. They were afraid to question him because they didn’t want to appear ignorant or stupid since those who are “out of the loop” don’t get very far in the political realm.
Because of their focus on themselves, they couldn’t make sense of the cross and see who Jesus really was. They were thinking, “What can Jesus do for me?” not, “What can I do for Jesus?” Jesus patiently sits down, calls the Twelve to himself, and describes how his power structure operates, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” The master teacher then explains the key to the Kingdom by bringing a child into their midst and embracing it. He reinforces that power in the Kingdom comes through service to the least as represented by receiving or taking in the child who had no status in society, but there is something about embracing the child that is key to understanding the Kingdom. Jesus identifies himself with the least, the little ones, when he says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me…,” but he is also saying, “embrace childhood like this.” Bring the child to your heart to know what it means to receive.
Jesus is teaching the disciples and teaching us about spiritual childhood. In the Holy Spirit, through our baptism, we are all beloved children of God our Heavenly Father. We have entered his kingdom and are under his care. God loves us. We need to learn how to receive his love and to trust in his love like a little child. This is the essence of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” – the embrace of spiritual childhood. There is no jealousy or selfish ambition in the one who sees himself as a child of God because the child trusts that Our Heavenly Father will provide and will take care of all his needs. The spiritual child is even able to receive the Cross because he knows that God the Father is all good and would not allow anything to happen to him that wasn’t somehow for the good.
The power hungry and the ambitious do not trust God; that is why they think they have to be the greatest and to do as much as possible and to get as much as possible, because they don’t believe that God will provide. They have difficulty accepting the cross because they are afraid of failure – weakness is perceived as a threat to self-preservation rather than as an opportunity for trust in divine providence. Because of their lack of trust in God, the power hungry can’t say with the psalmist, “The Lord upholds my life… Behold, God is my helper.”
Why does St. James say that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice”? Because the actions of the jealous and the selfish are not ordered to God’s love. God’s love is always other-focussed. The jealous and the ambitious are always focussed on themselves. Other persons are merely means to an end, treated as objects to be used for one’s own gratification, not as persons to be loved for who they are in and of themselves. There is a sharp contrast between those who are grasping for power and the spiritual child who is able to receive the love of God. Grasping vs. receiving – it is the difference between spiritual death and spiritual life. Ask Adam and Eve. The root of the original sin was a grasping for power rather than trusting in God’s love. There is something noble about the desire in the human heart for greatness – that is not the problem. That longing for greatness is a sign that we are made for God – for infinite greatness. The problems come when we try to attain that greatness without God.
The sad and ironic thing about the worldly quest for power is that the power hungry never get what they are really looking for and they are never satisfied. St. James makes this clear when he says, “You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain… You do not possess because you do not ask.” Those who lust for power and prestige are all about taking; they don’t know how to ask, because asking requires one to be receptive and to be dependent on another for the gift. Asking requires humility. The worldly approach is not satisfying because it is the opposite of love. Love gives itself away freely for the good of the other. Just look at the Cross – our definition of divine love. True love doesn’t feed the selfish passions, but is other directed in conformity with the Passion of Jesus Christ. Love in humble service satisfies because, when we love one another as Jesus loves us, his joy is in us so our joy may be complete (cf. John 15:11-12).
At this Eucharist, where we have the opportunity to receive God’s love, God gives us the grace to love as he loves. When we receive the Eucharist, the memorial of the only Son’s passion, death, and resurrection, we have the opportunity to recognize our oneness, our union with the Son, and to embrace our adopted Sonship – our spiritual childhood. And therefore embrace the crosses in our lives in faith, hope, and love. Jesus calls us today to re-evaluate how we look at power and greatness in the world and how our attitude affects our relations and our decisions at work, at home, and even in our service to the Church. Where can I be more focussed on others and less focussed on myself? May our prayer today and every day be not, “What can you do for me, Jesus?” but, “Jesus, what can I do for you?”