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This Sunday, the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Church readings give us an antidote to our number one disease: Pride.
We are unhappy because we are all constantly arguing that we are greater.
Ironically, whenever I read this Sunday’s Gospel, I feel like I am greater than the apostles because they argue about who is the greatest. I don’t do that.
Then it hits me: Yes I do. We all do. All the time.
The difference is, we aren’t honest enough to come out and say, “I’m the greatest”: We do it through social media posts, home decoration, and subtle comments about what, and who, we know.
We tell belittling stories of our encounters with people we feel qualified to ridicule or make subtle but meaningful references to the shortcomings of mutual friends. Then when we tell stories about ourselves — to others, or in our minds — we reinterpret almost everything that happened as a triumph of me, the indomitable hero.
Jesus wants us to be more like children.
“Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
What does Jesus see in children?
It is not that children are invariably sweet and docile. They aren’t. Children have their egos too. Big time. But children start from, and live in, a position of secondary importance.
Everything in a child’s life is ultimately determined by someone else’s decisions: His address, her school, his socks. She comes home at a time and manner arranged by her parents, and he eats food according to the choices his parents offer.
Jesus wants us to see that we are exactly like that. A child is not the protagonist in her own story yet; she is a subplot in someone else’s story — her parents’. And we aren’t ultimately the protagonist of our own story, either.
The story we are in stars God and his saving action in the world. He gives us a walk-on part, not a starring role.
If we ignore our place in God’s story, failure becomes unendurable.
This Sunday’s Gospel begins when Jesus tells his disciples: “The son of man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him.”
But the disciples “did not understand the saying and they were afraid to question him.”
Those who see themselves as stars of the show cannot understand failure; they want only triumph. But those who see themselves as players in God’s story embrace failure, because they know the main plotline is what is important, and that their failures fit into the larger story of success.
We each have the same objection to the cross the disciples did. We would greatly prefer that the Church triumph gloriously, and skip the crosses — the harrowing ordeals that make us doubt everything.
But in reality, victory is a poor test of fidelity. The first reading, from Wisdom, prefigures the cross Jesus and his followers would be faced this way: “Let us see whether his words be true,” it says. “With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test.”
It is not failure but pride that fouls up our lives.
Humble failure can’t hurt us ultimately — but the success of our pride can.
“Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice,” says the Second Reading, the letter of St. James.
Think of all the problems our pride causes in our lives when we let it have its way: Pride is a reason most of us are in debt — for a house that’s too big, for a wardrobe that’s too much, for a car that’s beyond our means, and for gadgets we don’t need. Pride is also the reason that our relationships fail or flail. Pride makes us dissatisfied at work, with that job that is beneath us, and at home, where we resent the way we are treated. St. James even goes so far to say that pride, unchecked, is the reason for war.
But relinquishing pride brings peace because “the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”
One of the greatest gifts of Christianity is the freedom to be ordinary.
Nine days from this Sunday is the Feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (so start your novena — maybe a Holy Hour novena). She helped reveal that the true greatness of a Christian is in the ordinary, small acts we make every day.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
St. Thérèse says “You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”
May her prayers help us be ordinary, failure-prone Christians who are faithful … and happy.
This appeared at Aleteia.
Image: Campus of Benedictine College, Kansas.