Sunday, September 16, 2012

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Breaking Up with Mr. Know-It-All

Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 114:1-6,8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

Mr. Know It All
Well you think you know it all
But you don't know a thing at all
Yeah baby, you don't know a thing about me
You don’t know a thing about me

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of you will recognise these words. They are the closing lines from a song performed by Kelly Clarkson. The song is entitled Mr. Know It All. And it’s sung by a girl who feels taken for granted by her boyfriend. Some guy who acts as though he knows everything about her, when he actually doesn’t. Some idiot who tries to control her, to put her down, and even to lie to her. A creep who seems to think that she will always stay with him no matter how badly he treats her. Well, the girl won’t stand for it it any longer. She comes to a decision that’s expressed in the song’s chorus.

Oh you think that you know me, know me
That's why I'm leaving you lonely, lonely
'Cause baby, you don't know a thing about me
You don't know a thing about me

As you might have guessed, sisters and brothers, this is what they call a break-up song. The girl finds the courage to stand up for herself. She packs her bags and leaves her loser of a boyfriend. Even though he claims to know it all, he doesn’t know a thing about her. So why stay and be miserable. Better to leave...

Not unlike Kelly Clarkson, our Mass readings today also sing to us of people who seem to think they know it all. In the second reading, St. James writes about someone who thinks he knows all about being a Christian. Someone who claims that he has faith. But James seriously doubts that this is true, because the person does not express his faith in good works. And, as James is eager to point out, faith without good works is quite dead. In the words of Kelly Clarkson’s song, we might say that, even though he may claim to know it all, this person doesn’t know a thing about the faith. Which is the same as saying that he doesn’t know a thing about the Lord Jesus, the object of our faith.

But, if it is true that faith without good works is dead, does it then follow that, as long as we are doing a lot of good works, we can be sure that we have a living faith? Does it mean that, if I do many good deeds–if I donate a lot of money to the poor, or if I spend a lot of time in church, or volunteer regularly at a home for the less fortunate, or if I even go on the occasional mission trip–then I know all about the faith? Know all about Jesus? Is that all there is to it? Is the faith only about performing good actions?

We begin to find an answer to our question when we consider carefully what is happening in the gospel today. You may notice, first of all, that we are now at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel. As you know, the gospel has 16 chapters. Today’s reading is taken from chapter 8, where we find an important turning point in the story. Up till now, the disciples have been following Jesus, listening to his teaching, and witnessing his miracles–his good works. Not only that, the disciples themselves have actually actively participated in the Lord’s ministry. In chapter 6, for example, Jesus had sent out the 12 apostles, who then went out to preach repentance, heal the sick, and cast out demons. In other words, like Jesus, they went about doing good works.

So we might expect them to know something about Jesus. And, as it turns out, they do. At least they know more than the rest of the people who have not shared in Jesus’ ministry. To these people, even though they may have witnessed the power of Jesus’ miracles and his preaching, Jesus is still only one of the prophets. In other words, he’s nothing special. There have been many others like him in the past. In contrast, the disciples–represented by Peter–actually recognise the uniqueness of Jesus. He’s not just the most recently arrived prophet in a long line of prophets. He is the Christ. The Anointed One. The one God has specially chosen to free God’s people. So it’s clear that the disciples have some knowledge about Jesus. But does this mean then that they know it all?

Not quite. Even though Peter and the disciples have been following Jesus for quite some time. And although they have even performed many good works in his name. Something is still lacking in their knowledge. Which is why Jesus gives them strict orders not to tell anyone about him. They still have one more crucial lesson to learn. They need to learn what it really means to be the Christ. For many were expecting a military leader. Someone who would bring victory over the Roman oppressors. It is no coincidence then that it is also precisely at this time that Jesus begins to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be put to death, and after three days to rise again. Just when the disciples may think that they know all about him–simply because they have shared in the many good works that he has been doing–Jesus begins to teach them that they have more to learn.

What does this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that having faith is not just about performing good deeds? More than only action, having faith is also about passion. More than just doing good things for others, having faith is also about being willing to endure the bad things that others might do to us, provided that it is the loving thing for us to do. For that is what Jesus himself did. Those moving words that we heard in the first reading could so easily be applied to the Lord: For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face against insult and spittle.

Which is why, when Peter tries to remonstrate with him–claiming, in effect, to know more about the Lord than the Lord himself–we might well expect Jesus to do to him, what that girl does to her boyfriend in Kelly Clarkson’s song. We might expect the Lord to pack his bags and to leave. But, thankfully, this is does not happen. On the contrary, the Lord continues to try his best to teach his disciples the lesson that they need to learn: That it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer, and die, and then be raised. And that living faith must be expressed not just in the performance of good actions. But also, ultimately, in the endurance of the Cross.

And isn’t this difficult lesson something that we too need to keep learning? In the various difficulties and challenges that we might face everyday, Jesus continues to sing us a song of challenge and of consolation. He continues to reach out to us his hand of companionship. For, unlike Kelly Clarkson, the song that the Lord sings is not a song of break-up, but a song of eternal love. A love that will never die, because the singer has already died once and for all. He died and was raised to life again. The challenge that remains, sisters and brothers, is for us to recognise and to let go of the different ways we might continue to claim to know it all about the Lord without, at the same time, being willing to take up our Cross and to follow him.

Sisters and brothers, how might the Lord be inviting you to break up with Mr. Know-It-All today?

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