October 21, 2018
Homily for the XXII Sunday after Pentecost B – October 21, 2018
Isaiah 53: 7-12
Hebrews 5: 5-10
Mark 10: 35-45
Jesus has a purpose. He intends to train his disciples for the time when he will not be with them anymore. He hopes that an alternative community will blossom in his wake, one in which love will prevail, instead of domination. The disciples don't get it. Yes, they might agree ideally, but in their everyday interactions they keep behaving like people completely steeped in the ideas and the methods of the Empire, which Jesus describes as follows: “The recognized rulers lord over their subjects, and the “great” know how to make their authority felt” (Mk. 10: 42). They keep thinking in terms of hierarchical power rather than in terms of equality of dignity. John and James ask Jesus to be given the right to sit at his right and at his left when he is enthroned. They look at Jesus as the New Emperor. As an answer, Jesus issues a call to become servants of the new community, agents of change through a complete reframing of their notions of power and honor. When is the next time that Jesus is presented in the Gospel with one person at his right and another at his left? The crucifixion. “And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27). At the foot of the cross, one individual finally understands what Jesus is all about, and it's not one of the disciples. The enlightened one is a Roman centurion, one who represents the enemy, the Empire, and that should really give us pause.
Before this final moment, Jesus tells James and John that he has a cup to drink and a baptism that he must undergo. The cup is a symbol of the destiny that Jesus fully embraces, it is the cup of sorrow that he chooses to drink to the dregs. The baptism is the symbol of the other side of the event of his death, it is a powerful and shocking image of his being killed by the agents of the Empire: the waves overwhelm him and he is dragged to the bottom. He asks John and James if they can follow him on this road, and they foolishly say: “Yes!” They do not even understand the question. Later on, according to our tradition, the male apostles, who all run away when Jesus is taken, end up as martyrs, one by one. At the beginning, they are reluctant learners. In the end, they become witnesses, like Jesus, of an alternative way of living which, quite predictably, triggers the rage of the powers that be. So, there is hope even for us. The hope to get it... and to get killed for it. But what kind of hope is that?
Last Sunday we heard the call to let go of wealth and family ties, and that was hard enough. But today we get to the culmination of the teachings of Jesus about what it means to be his disciples. And such culmination is about letting go of one's life. We need to be very clear: there is no glorification of suffering in the Gospels, there is no morbid courting of death. And yet, there is the notion that the followers of Jesus are required to live in such an alternative way, in a way so in contrast with all they have learned before becoming disciples, that the powers invested in domination will crack down on them and will destroy them. That is why they need to learn how to let go of their own life: in order to die not in anger or in desperation, but with the full knowledge that their death will be the seed of the kingdom of God on earth. How is it possible to apply such a teaching to our present context? I don't know. We need not to forget that there are people, in this present age, who have experienced or are experiencing martyrdom. I think, for example, of the group of Catholic monks in Algeria a few years ago. But we have been living for decades, if not centuries, within the bubble of “cultural Christianity”, a context in which we church-goers were ready to despise the non-Christians but not ready at all to embrace the authentic teachings of Jesus.
I was at a meeting with priests the other day, and somebody said that the reason why we became so lax is that pews were full for many decades, and so we didn’t feel the need to worry, we did not examine deeply enough what we were doing. In any case, perhaps we need a lot more “spiritual milk” before we can be confronted with the “solid food” that this teaching presents to us today!
But, if I really need to try to find a meaning for such a hard teaching for us today, I would suggest to reflect on what is the “letting go” that Jesus preached. Whether it is the letting go of being perceived as successful, or the letting go of our group identity and our strict boundaries, or the letting go of wealth (material or symbolic), or the letting go of human ties which bind us, and finally the letting go of our own physical life, these are all invitations that point to more life, not to less life, provided we undergo a very deep experience of release and letting go. Such experience can be truly and deeply painful, as the images of the cup and baptism suggest. It is about being engulfed by chaos, by the messiness that chaos and pain create in our lives, and accompanying such free fall with complete acceptance. But on the other side, when the opposite experience kicks in, there is a wideness that we cannot even imagine while we stay on this side. Actually, if you have experienced the letting go of your aspirations of success, if you have been humbled by the way your life has turned out and, instead of becoming bitter, you have learned humility, that's already an example for you. It's the first step that coincides with the acceptance to follow Jesus as a teacher who is a loser and not a winner. If you have done that, you know that putting aside the weight of the psychological need to be successful triggers a great release of energy in your life. The other steps may follow.
Our ritual celebration of the sacraments may be for us a way to learn the process of letting go. The images of cup and baptism obviously bear a reference to our two main sacraments, both of which are deeply related to the death of Jesus. We remember his death every Sunday by ritually breaking his body and pouring his blood in the cup, and whenever we baptize someone we say that the person is being immersed in Christ's death. Of course, in both cases, our eyes are fixed on the wideness and the depths of life that are revealed for us through those sacraments. The baptized emerge from the waters of death like the resurrected Jesus. Every Sunday, we keep feeding on Jesus not because we make a fetish of pain and death, but because we recognize that only through that passage, the passing through chaos and destruction willingly accepted for what it is, more life can flourish. We would be shallow if we considered only the results of the sacraments, their joyous side, without appreciating and living through the deep process of letting go which makes both sacraments what they truly are.
In the end, we are called to let go of ourselves, of what we think makes up our identity, what we cannot even imagine to let go of. Not because our God is violent and wants to strip us of life and joy, and not even of our identity, but because it is only through a deep process of letting go in union with our Lord Jesus that our true self is rescued, and honored, and more light and life are brought into the world. Amen.