Based on Mk. 10:35-45
Fame, glory, self-centred recognition, success, greatness, being the centre of attention, standing in the limelight, lusting after being number one, top dog….In our day and age, a lot of people would give their hind teeth and much more for all of this. People, these days, will do anything and everything to possess fortune, fame and glory—everything and anything that is, as long as it does not involve a cross, suffering and serving others in non-selfish, sacrificial ways.
James and John, in our gospel today, didn’t really know what they were asking Christ for. I wonder, how often do we know what we’re asking Christ for? I wonder, are our requests of Christ any different than that of James and John? Do we, like they want fame, fortune, glory, without the cross, without suffering and serving others in non-selfish ways?
There is a story of the scholar, musician and doctor, Albert Schweitzer, nailing on the roof of a hospital building in the Lambarene and seeing an African native passing, calling out to him to come up and help him, only to receive the man’s refusal and his haughty explanation, “I can read and write.”
Mrs. Schweitzer was asked one time if this was a true story, and she said yes, except that it omitted the doctor’s laughing reply to the native, “My friend, I too have had a try at being an intellectual, but I haven’t been able to make a go of it.” So Schweitzer simply went on pounding.1
This story illustrates well the attitude of James and John in our gospel today. They believed themselves to be a cut above all of the other disciples; they were miles better than the rest; they were in a league of their own; nobody was as good as they were; they deserved special honour; special recognition; they deserved to be recognized as rulers lording it over everyone else. They, like the man who could read and write in the story, could not possibly lower themselves to share the workload with others—that would be too humiliating! But Jesus, like Albert Schweitzer in the story, will show them that being last is being first; that the way of humble, loving service is the greatest way of all; that we are called upon not to be served, but to serve.
Elsewhere, (unfortunately I’m not able to trace the source) Albert Schweitzer, reflecting on service and the satisfaction of greatness in the ordinary had this to say: “Often people say, “I would like to do some good in the world. But with so many responsibilities at home and in business, my nose is always to the grindstone. I am sunk in my own petty affairs, and there is no chance for my life to mean anything.” This is a common and dangerous error. In helpfulness to others, every (one) can find on his (or her) own doorstep adventures for the soul—our surest source of true peace and lifelong satisfaction. To know this happiness, one does not have to neglect duties or do spectacular things. This career for the spirit I call ‘your second job.’ In this there is no pay except the privilege of doing it. In it you will encounter noble chances and find deep strength. What the world lacks most today is (people) who occupy themselves with the needs of others. In this unselfish labour a blessing falls on both the helper and the helped. No matter how busy one is, any human being can assert his (or her) personality by seizing every opportunity for spiritual activity (through
this) second job. Our greatest mistake, as individuals, is that we walk through our life with closed eyes and do not notice our chances. Such a career of the spirit demands patience, devotion, daring. But in this ‘second job’ is to be found the only true happiness.”
This business of being called by Christ to serve rather than be served, is a tough one for us, isn’t it? The old, sinful Adam and Eve in each one of us would prefer it the other way round—like James and John, we want others serving us. It’s extremely hard for us to follow Jesus along the road of the cross. Yet, Jesus tells us that unconditional service; giving of ourselves without expecting recognition, honour and glory is what true discipleship is all about.
How is it possible for us to serve one another as Jesus teaches us in our gospel today? Is this not too far out of reach, to idealistic for us to accomplish? It is indeed possible to serve as Jesus teaches us; it is not too far out of reach; it is not too idealistic. However, to be a true servant of Christ involves a total change of attitude and perspective than that of the world. Instead of seeking personal attention and recognition by putting others down; Jesus teaches us that focusing on the needs of others and giving ourselves in service without expecting anything in return is the way to be his disciple. But isn’t this easier said than done? YES! How is it possible for us to follow Christ in this way?
Well, one of the key requirements is that we become good listeners. Jesus had just told his disciples that he was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would be put to death. But these words of Jesus zoomed right past James and John. They were not listening to Jesus; they were too busy thinking of themselves; of their own selfish interests. How often do people—especially our loved ones!—tell us important
information; but alas, we let it go in one ear and out the other, without listening, like James and John did? How often do we miss what is being
said to us; how often do we miss opportunities to serve others; because like James and John, instead of listening, we’re focusing too much on ourselves; on our own selfish interest?
It has been said by one wise person, that the voice of God is often as close to you as your neighbour. If that’s true, then how do we listen to God speaking to us through our neighbour? Do we ignore God’s voice? Do make fun of God’s voice? Do we criticize God’s voice? Do we reject God’s voice altogether? Or do we listen to God’s voice and try our best to respond in as loving ways as we can? If we do listen, then our opportunities for serving Christ are indeed endless!
The following story provides us with a good example of how we might serve Christ unconditionally.
A war correspondent tells a story of coming across a nun on her knees patiently swabbing the gangrenous leg of a young soldier lying on a mat on the floor. Repulsed by the scene, the correspondent turned his head away and said: “Sister, I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” The nun paused momentarily, and said: “Neither would I.”2
That nun was serving her God not out of the motive of gaining material riches but—like Albert Schweitzer and Jesus himself—out of humble, unconditional, loving service.
May we too serve Christ in a spirit of humble, unconditional love; by listening with care, with our whole heart and mind; then by acting appropriately upon what we hear. Then, we too shall be able to say with the poet Rabindranath Tagore: “I slept and dreamt that life was pleasure, I woke and saw that life was service, I served and discovered that service was pleasure.”