Sunday, September 24, 2006

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
The Test of Conflicting Desires

Reading: Wisdom 2:12. 17-20; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

If I’m not mistaken, for many of us the semester is heating up even as the weather is cooling down. We have probably reached that time when quizzes and tests are becoming more frequent. Tests are something of a pain, aren’t they? We need to work hard to pass them. And then we need to endure the unavoidable anxiety that comes with taking a test even when one has studied hard for it. Given a choice we’d probably wish we didn’t have to take them. And yet we’ve probably come to accept them as an inevitable part of student-life. Why? Why do we willingly put ourselves through them? What do we hope to gain? What motivates us?

Our readings today also speak about testing. In the first reading from the book of Wisdom, the godless wish to test the virtuous person with cruelty and torture, because he annoys them and opposes their way of life. Why do they wish to do so? What do they hope to gain? What motivates them?

In the gospel, Jesus continues to teach his disciples about his approaching passion, death and resurrection. He is the virtuous person who will be tortured and put to death by the godless. And he intends to submit himself to this terrible testing. Again, we might ask: why does he do this? What does he hope to gain? What motivates him?

The second reading from the letter of James helps us to answer these questions and to begin to relate them to our own experience. James speaks of an inner struggle within each of us. He highlights the desires fighting inside your own selves. What are these desires? What is it that moves us to do the things that we do? Of course, our desires are many and various. But our readings invite us to consider just one of these: the desire for greatness. We probably all experience something of this desire. And yet this desire can also be expressed in different forms, can move us to act in very different ways.

On the one hand the natural desire for greatness can take the form of, what James calls jealousy and ambition, the desperate need to make something of ourselves in this world and at all cost. We see this manifested perhaps in the argument among the disciples in the gospel. It is likely also this same desire that motivates the godless to test the virtuous person, to condemn him to a shameful death. What is the result of this desire? Clearly, as James points out, it leads to nothing but disharmony, and wicked things of every kind being done. Even if it does achieve greatness of a sort, it is only at the cost of our happiness and that of others.

In contrast, the desire for greatness can take another form, can move us in a different direction. We see this in the life of Jesus who teaches his disciples what he himself puts into practice: that if anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all. This is what James refers to as the wisdom that comes down from above. The one who follows this way will likely have to suffer, even as Jesus did, but the result is true and ultimate happiness and peace.

Even as we continue to work hard this semester we might take some time to examine and test our own desires. What kind of greatness are we looking for – that which makes for disharmony or that which leads to peace?

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