29th Sunday 2009 B
“You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
If we want to see just how human the apostles were, all we have to do is look at today’s Gospel. It recounts for us how two apostles, who would later be known as pillars of the church, James and John, seemed to be all too humanly seeking top places in the kingdom: “grant that in your glory we may set one at your right and the other at your left.” Anyone who’s been in academia, business or politics can recognize this behavior of trying to climb over others to get appointed to the positions of glory and power. Note how the two apostles are quite blunt stating “in your glory” we would like the top two positions. How abject all this is, how unsavory, how shocking it is that this behavior is seen among the 12 apostles themselves. And then we are told that the other 10 apostles become indignant when they witness the ambition of the two brothers, but one has the suspicion they may have been angry because the brothers beat them to it; we just don’t know.
However, Jesus gives two responses that must have set both the brothers and the other 10 back on their heels. First, he warns them that those who will be closest to him will share his fate in this world. “You do not know what you are asking,” in asking to be at his right and left hand. Those who are closest to Jesus will be baptized with the baptism which he is about to undergo, the baptism of his passion and death. They likely had none of this in mind when they asked for the top positions, but Jesus used the occasion to warn them that those who were truly close to him must expect to share his fate in this world, the fate of rejection, suffering and death. Indeed, we are told that all the apostles suffered martyrdom because of their closeness to Christ. Only in the next world, would they share his glory; in this world they would share his cross.
Secondly, Jesus used this occasion, where the apostles displayed their humanity in all its weakness in a sleazy ambition, to teach them the true nature of their mission and the kind of authority it would carry with it. Great authority will be a trap for them unless they truly come to understand Jesus and his exercise of authority. Human ambition is a deadly poison in the life of the Church because it inevitably leads men to desire the first place for the sake of glory and honor, no matter how much they may kid themselves into thinking that they are simply desiring to work for the good of the Church. Ambition will inevitably use authority in a distorted way to promote one’s own ambition under the guise of serving, even saving, the Church.
Note what Jesus says: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it must not be so among you.” Those who are ambitious, whether they be working in the world or in the Church, will inevitably abuse their authority to advance their own career, their own glory; like the rulers over the Gentiles, they will lord it over their subjects. “But,” warns Jesus, “it must not be like that among you.” And then he explains that they must be like their master. Jesus was certainly the first of all, but he says the first of all must be the slave of all, “for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” The apostles, and their successors are the bishops, and those under them who share in the governing role of the church as pastors of the flock, their priests, must understand that their authority is a form of service and that the test of that authority as service will be the surrender of their lives in the service, the ransom, of their flock.
Church history teaches us that ambition has always been a deadly cancer in the life of the Church. Both St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great wrote about this cancer in their great pastoral treatises. Ambition and the desire for honors will lead pastors, from the highest office of Pope to the lowest office of the parish priest, to modify their conduct in the preaching of the gospel and then the shepherding of his flock. St. Augustine speaks of the silence when the flock is being devoured: “the two things which the men are seeking to feed themselves and not the sheep: the benefit of having needs supplied, and the favor of honor and glory.” And again he calls false shepherds, “those who seek their own advantage, not what is Christ’s.”
St. Gregory says much the same thing, “negligent religious leaders are often afraid to speak freely and say what needs to be said — for fear of losing favor with the people.” And in another place (Homily 17 on John) he says, “we give up the ministry of preaching, and, to our discredit, as I see it, we are called bishops but enjoy this honor in name only and not in practice. For the people entrusted to our care are abandoning God and we remain silent. They have fallen into wicked ways and we did not utter a word of reproach.” The desire for honor and popularity is the key to the success of ambition, and it does not cease once one attains high office. This happened in places in Germany during the Nazi regime where bishops unfortunately kept silent, and it is happening today in many places in the western world where the faithful are being led away from God into an anti-life culture and life style, and yet the reproaches of those politicians and academics who are misleading them are too feckless and are frequently counterbalanced by the honors Church leaders continue to bestow on the enemies of the Church and human civilization
The apostles of Jesus are given authority in order to preach the gospel and to safeguard the flock from ravenous wolves. But the desire for honor and power, which are the driving forces in ambition, inevitably leads to a betrayal of the very purpose of that authority. How often in the history of the church, those in highest positions of authority have acted like the Gentiles, whom Jesus criticizes, and have lorded it over their subjects, while at the same time remaining silent when it came to correcting errors and falsehoods that were ravaging their flocks. Yet, how could they speak with authority when their own lives often contradicted what they would have to preach.
Jesus never hesitated to safeguard his flock. He never hesitated to call hypocrisy by its name, hypocrisy, to call evil by its name, evil, or to confront his enemies for their self-serving distortion of the Jewish Law of Moses. He did not hesitate to declare divorce and remarriage as adultery. He never hesitated to rebuke his own disciples, including Peter who would be the first pope, and in today’s Gospel James and John, the other two pillars of the church, who put their own unsavory ambition on display that day. He is the model of all shepherds because he is always the one shepherd of the Church who operates through the shepherds he chooses through Holy Orders. To be his instrument is an awesome responsibility, and it is not false humility when shepherds honestly asked their people for prayers.
St. Augustine understood the great danger involved in being a bishop, “but I, besides being a Christian, and for this having to a render an account of my life, and the leader also, and for this shell rendered to God and the count of my ministry.” Then, in speaking about what Scripture says concerning “shepherds who desire to be called shepherds, but refused to fulfill the office of shepherds,” he says this to his people: “for your part, listen with attention; I must listen with fear and trembling.” Would that every high churchman so well understood the great responsibility that comes with the authority of the office of shepherd bestowed by Christ! Let us pray constantly, then, for such shepherds after the heart of Christ. The future of the Church in this country truly depends upon it, and the future of civilization depends upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ that the Church must preach in season and out of season.